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Commentary: How Austin could atone for policies that harm the homeless

Imagine that you are an employer deciding between two people who seem equally qualified for a job you are offering. However, when examining criminal records, one person has a clean report but the other has seven convictions. You end the interview and hire the chap who’s “clean.”

Now, imagine you are a landlord. The same two people are before you — and both have sufficient funds to rent. Again, you look at criminal records. You are concerned about liability issues, so you choose the applicant with no convictions.

A recent city of Austin auditor’s report found that there are three city ordinances — bans on panhandling downtown between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., camping in public city areas and sitting or lying down in parts of downtown unless waiting for a bus or using an official bench — that were created to address homelessness by keeping order. Instead, they hurt the thousands of individuals simply asking for help while they’re down on their luck. The auditor’s analysis is clear: These ordinances act as barriers to people trying to escape homelessness and leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits unless they are revised or repealed.

CITY HALL: Austin ordinances don’t help the homeless and might not be legal.

Understand that the criminalization of homelessness cycle, as outlined by House the Homeless over a decade ago, begins with: employers paying a wage so low that employees fall out of their housing and into homelessness; a citywide lack of housing resources; and the city’s “quality of life” ordinances.

An individual who can’t pay the $200 fine must work for free in the form of “community service.” However, according to the 2010 Health Survey conducted by House the Homeless, 48 percent of people experiencing homelessness are so disabled they cannot work. So, a warrant is issued for their arrest; folks are jailed; and the individual loses his or her job.

These ordinances are Class C misdemeanor offenses that could create a criminal history. These citations could later act as barriers to people escaping homelessness when they apply for housing or employment.

The auditor’s report also indicates that using the criminal justice system to steer people to resources — which really don’t exist — is not only unethical, it is also dysfunctional. Only five of 6,300 people in municipal court “voluntarily” entered substance abuse treatment facilities.

Federal funds are also in jeopardy now that applications ask municipalities what specific steps are underway to reduce these barriers.

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So, what can be done? The auditor’s report challenges the very existence of the ordinances. It seeks the best methods to manage homelessness. However, House the Homeless says we can start by paying all our workers a living wage so, they can work themselves off the streets.

We can also create a worker’s hotel like the old YMCAs, where you paid your $10, got a good night’s sleep, woke up rested, used a shared bathroom, and then went off to work again.

For those who cannot work but get an SSI check for their disabilities — about $735 per month, which is just a little more than half of the failed federal minimum wage — we can index the check to the local cost of housing, so that no matter how much the landlord charges, they can always be housed in an efficiency apartment.

Finally, provide enough benches citywide, so we can get our people experiencing homelessness off the sidewalks and gutters and provide them a little dignity and fairness.

Troxell is president of House the Homeless Inc. in Austin.

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