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To Protect Women From Violence, Austin Needs More Shelters

whistlesAustin, you beautiful, friendly, innovative, progressive, creative, marvelous metropolis, what is happening to you? Last year, House the Homeless asked the city to ease up on the “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. The slogan was, “Don’t give Austin a black eye,” and a bunch of protesters showed up at the City Council meeting with symbolically bruised (by makeup) eye sockets.

To give a person, institution, or city a black eye means, traditionally, that something harms their character and reputation. Libel and slander are about false accusations. When we speak of somebody having a black eye, the connotation is of an accurate charge. Check out this definition:

What does ‘black eye’ mean? A mark of shame, a humiliating setback, as in

That there are enough homeless folks to need another shelter is a black eye for the administration.

We are not making this up. That example is given by Christine Ammer in the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

If refusing to allow people to sit down can give a city a black eye, what can a string of murders do? Since November, there have been at least six deaths of people experiencing homelessness that could be called suspicious. In July, there was a definite killing, this time of a man, but possibly linked to the death of Valerie Godoy in June. In the latest atrocity, the victim appears to have been fatally attacked as he slept. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless comments:

It’s not safe out here for these people. They are vulnerable. We only have 700 beds for 4,000 homeless people in Austin. There are no-sit ordinances. Nobody can get any rest without getting a ticket.

Richard told The Statesman:

We just hope no one is preying on the homeless. They are already totally without almost everything but hope.

Kathy Ridings, Director of Social Services for Austin’s Salvation Army, says:

It’s a concern for everybody that our community be able to respond appropriately to the growing need of homeless women for shelter and housing resources. We don’t want anybody to be sleeping outside, but for some folks its a life-threatening issue.

A coalition of service providers is collaborating in an effort to increase the number of shelter beds for homeless women, and Ridings is co-chair of a subcommittee addressing the need for more resources. The other co-chair is Irit Umani, Executive Director of Trinity Center, which also serves the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Austin. Also involved are CAN and ECHO. The former is the Community Action Network, a partnership of government, nonprofit, private, and faith-based organizations that work together to enhance the social, health, educational, and economic well-being of Central Texas. ECHO is the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a planning body whose literature says:

Working with 90 community members monthly from local non-profits, businesses and government, ECHO develops, prioritizes, and promotes strategies to prevent end homelessness.

On its homepage, the nonprofit group keeps a running total of how many people are helped. For instance, 1,095 Travis County children received some kind of service in the past week, and the number of shelter stays for women is 618, which presumably would be divided by seven nights to arrive at the actual number of homeless women who slept safely. For agencies that help, the situation is complicated by the fact that homeless women comprise two distinct populations: solo, and with children. Mothers with families need a lot of resources.

Street violence

And safety is a crucial issue. Take a look at a city that is similar to Austin in many ways — Portland, Oregon. In the late 1980s, Portland developed a 12-point action plan and resolved that no one requesting shelter should be denied it. In 1988, an official report stated:

The emergency shelter system has capacity to handle those who need it. Anyone who wants emergency housing can now get it. No one is forced to sleep in the streets.

That was a shining moment in one city’s history, but good intentions could not keep up with reality. As of December 2011, Suzanne Stevens reported that the number of homeless families in Portland had increased by 29% since the previous year, requests for emergency shelter had increased by 15%, and 25% (or one-quarter) of those requesting shelter were turned away due to the lack of beds. Sheltered or not, here’s the point. Just a few days ago, Sarah Mirk of the Portland Mercury reported that:

[…] nearly 40 percent of homeless people in Portland report being the victim of an assault.

Austin and the future of women experiencing homelessness

In Austin, also just a few days ago, Andrea Ball wrote for The Statesman that violence is “a routine part of life on the streets.” What is being done? In the short term, the intention is to follow the model of cold weather shelters — in other words, to treat the current crisis as a life-threatening emergency, which it is. Efforts are being made to determine if more shelter capacity can somehow be wrung out of the existing system. The Salvation Army, Ridings says, is over capacity already, with people sleeping on mats on the floor.

One proposal is for a network of churches to provide a safe sleeping option. The aim is to have a trial program in place by the first of September, with the entry point being Trinity Episcopal Center. Vans will be needed to take participants to church shelters on a rotating basis, and much else will be needed as well.

As part of the short-term effort toward preservation of life, the House the Homeless Emergency Whistle Defense Program is distributing 1,000 tornado whistles with lanyards. The distress signal is to tweet three times, pause, tweet three more times, until, hopefully, the threat is scared away or help arrives. Hundreds of whistles have been distributed by Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), Caritas, and Trinity Episcopal Center. Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, offered on behalf of the organization to further carry out the distribution process. Here is what this amazing group does:

Going out onto city streets every night with our catering trucks, MLF serves food, basic clothing, hygiene products, etc. to our brothers and sisters living on or near the streets. We are proud to say that our trucks provide food and clothing and promote dignity to our homeless brothers and sisters in need 365 days a year.

Part of the intermediate plan might involve relocating women with children to the Salvation Army’s other shelter, which would open up 26 beds for single women at the downtown location. In the long term, a women’s emergency shelter is definitely needed, along with long-term supportive housing. At the invitation of chairman Tom Davis, a resolution on the subject is being presented to Austin’s Human Rights Commission. The activists are consulting with city council members and the office of the mayor, exploring the possibility of being allocated a portion of the affordable housing bond if it passes in November.

Do this

Here is the call to action: the petition for a women’s shelter already has, online and on paper, more than 3,500 signatures and it can always use more. Here is another call to action: listen for three tweets, pause, three tweets, which means somebody is in trouble, and go help. The Austin police have been consulted and seem willing to help in responding.

Incidentally, this is worth repeating about the Valerie Godoy murder: “A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly.” Is there a responsible adult out there who can reach these extreme biker kids and win them to the side of the angels? Maybe if Valerie Godoy had been armed with a distress whistle, the BMX park kids could have been heroes. What about you?

Reactions?

Source: “What does ‘black eye’ mean?,” YourDictionary.com
Source: “Police seek help in solving deaths of homeless people,” Statesman, 07/26/12
Source: “1988 Edition Preface: Progress Toward Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness,” PortlandOnline.com, 1988
Source: “No. of homeless Portland families up 29%,Portland Business Journal, 12/15/11
Source: “Ugh. Two Arrested for Assaults of Homeless People,” Portland Mercury, 08/02/12
Source: “As slayings raise concerns, homeless Austinites agree violence is common,” Statesman.com, 08/04/12