Shouting Matches Disrupt Homelessness Forum At St. Ed’s, Putting Council Members On Defensive

Sep 4, 2019

Austin's third forum on homelessness this summer began with a benediction, of sorts, from moderator Jack Musselman: that all people are created in God's image, and that the forum, hosted by St. Edward's University, would be civil and comport to the university's Catholic mission.

The guy from InfoWars apparently wasn't there for that benediction.

And so, roughly a third of the way through, Owen Shroyer interrupted, calling the Austin City Council "full of s- - -" and suggesting Democrats are the cause of homelessness crises in cities across the U.S. As he was removed, his comments were met with applause, kicking off a handful of disruptions over the 90-minute forum on the city's revised homelessness ordinances and its plans to build a shelter in South Austin.

They ranged from direct questioning of Austin City Council members about how the city's ordinances could affect child safety to outright shouting matches between attendees.

Whereas the last city forum focused on "the next 90 days" and solutions to homelessness in Austin, this one largely put city leaders on the defensive.

The brunt of the event focused on plans for a shelter in South Austin and on the future of divisive ordinances that alleviated restrictions on where people can camp, sit or lie down in public. 

Councilmembers faced criticism because of the planned shelter and because of concerns that police are no longer enforcing health and safety laws relating to homelessness.

Council Member Ann Kitchen pushed back on that, suggesting that Austinites reach out directly to council members' offices, rather than post on social websites like Nextdoor. Kitchen cited a post from a woman who tried to get a trespasser removed from her apartment complex. Respondents said she couldn't, as tenants aren't owners of properties. Kitchen urged residents to take the "next step" and reach out to police or to City Council members.

"There are things that are happening that are not legal. We need to understand why. We understand what tools APD needs to address them," she said. "So tell us when something’s happening, and don’t assume that we’re not doing anything to address them."

Kitchen said when her office learned of the situation it helped connect the person with the Austin Police Department and they were able resolve the issue.

Attendees also argued Austin police had stopped enforcing health and safety laws relating to homelessness – particularly regarding camping outside a planned shelter near schools in South Austin.

Mayor Steve Adler said he believes the city rules allow Austin police to enforce violations of health and safety and the perception they don't is anecdotal.

"I don't believe it, but if there is a police officer out there that is saying that, I would appreciate you getting his badge number and giving it to me – or giving it to the chief – because that is not acceptable conduct on behalf of our law enforcement people," Adler said. "I don't believe it's really happening."

City leaders have repeatedly argued the Austin City Council will enforce a restrictive covenant around the new shelter that would prohibit camping and loitering around the facility. Kitchen said city staff could have that language ironed out by mid-October.

"When you're homeless, you begin to feel invisible. So I would just ask for people to try to suspend their stereotypes and their personal biases ... and to get to know someone who is experiencing homelessness."

Jo Kathryn Quinn, CEO of Caritas, said she hopes facts will guide the discussion going forward, noting that homeless Austinites are much more likely to be victims of crimes than housed Austinites. She called on residents to get to know homeless people before painting them with a broad brush.

"Homelessness is one of the most dehumanizing and most socially isolating experiences someone can have," she said. "When you're homeless, you begin to feel invisible. So I would just ask for people to try to suspend their stereotypes and their personal biases ... and to get to know someone who is experiencing homelessness. And you will find they are human, just like you."

Quinn's call was met with applause, as was a call for civility from Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza after an attendee suggested moving Austin's homeless to Los Angeles. Garza said divisiveness over the issue had reached a "boiling point," and she hoped it wouldn't have before City Council's June 20 vote to scale back the ordinances.

Garza said she understood concerns from Austinites over safety, but that the visibility of Austin's homeless wasn't going to go away overnight.

"What I feel like I've heard throughout these conversations is, 'I want to help, but I don't want to see them,'" Garza said. "And that doesn't help – not seeing it doesn't solve the problem."

Garza touted the city's historic $62-million budget allotment to reduce homelessness, roughly $18 million of which will go toward housing-focused projects. City leaders are weighing whether to bring back restrictions in certain areas of the city, and Austin City Council members could vote on those proposals by Sept. 19.