Have you ever sat in a long line for a show opening or movie premiere? In several Texas cities, lying or sitting down in certain public spaces for an extended period is a punishable offense. Often, the fines associated with these ordinances push those without means into an even deeper cycle of poverty.
Members of Austin’s homeless community are using theater to give a firsthand account of how city codes like Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance impact their lives.
The show begins as members of the cast shuffle on stage, all of their lives' possessions in hand. Each cast member then steps up to the mic, sharing something about their past. One by one, they begin to sit down on the stage, succumbing to the weight of their belongings. On the floor below them, pieces of tape are arranged to resemble a map of downtown Austin.
The cast members aren’t just actors – they’re actually members of Austin’s homeless population. They’re rehearsing a play about Austin City Code Section 9-4-14, also known as the “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. Some say the ordinance specifically targets the homeless because it prohibits sitting or lying in the downtown Austin area – the city’s ‘business district,’ where most of Austin’s homeless population is centered.
This type of ordinance isn’t unique to Austin. Houston and San Antonio have nearly identical ordinances, and other Texas cities including El Paso, Amarillo and Dallas have ordinances that prohibit forms of sleeping or sitting in public spaces.
Ann Zárate, artistic director of the Trinity Street Players theatre troupe based at the theatre where the play is being performed, says the "No Sit, No Lie" project is a piece of devised theatre, or a play that comes out of a community or a specific group. In this case, the group is Austin’s homeless population. She says the script was born from several conversations with members of the homeless community regarding their experiences with the "No Sit/No Lie” ordinance.
“From those discussions, they began to dramatize those experiences,” Zárate says. “Not only are they essentially writing the script and devising the piece, they are performing it as well.”
Steven Potter is one of several cast members who have had personal experiences with the ordinance. He says that one night in 2011, Austin police found him sleeping on a bench near a bus stop in the early hours of the morning. The officers woke him up and gave him a ticket for violating the ordinance.
“That’s light,” Potter says. “A lot of people in my situation that aren’t out working at that point are asleep. They have to have a place to sleep, so benches are just as good as any place.”
Though he’s against the ordinance, he says he understands why it was implemented.
“I can see it from their point of view,” Potter says of business owners. “They have to run a business, they can’t have a homeless person sleeping in front of their door.”
He says the issue with the ordinance is that there aren’t enough resources for Austin’s homeless population, and that giving out tickets to those sitting or sleeping in public doesn’t help the problem – it just adds to it.
“You either get a ticket or in some cases wind up going to jail,” Potter says. “With a ticket, the person is still in that situation. They still need a place to sleep, they haven’t been offered a solution.”
That lack of resources is also a challenge for this play. Director Roni Chelben says one of the hardest things about the production is getting cast members to and from rehearsals.
“This is one thing that I think is the most challenging part of it, the fact that people are always in the midst of some sort of crisis,” she says. “It’s a crisis that you’re living on a daily basis.”
Chelben says that while she thinks lawmakers will need to get involved to make change official, she does see a unique value in a theater production like this one.
“I think getting people from a group that is very rarely heard of and usually being extremely generalized and marginalized, stereotyped, I think there are so many adjectives we can use for that – to be the one that determines the agenda in an event is a political step,” she says. “In this sense, using theater is important to direct and determine the agenda.”