In June of 2019, the Austin City Council voted to remove ordinances that prevented homeless people from camping in public. In May of 2021, the citizens of Austin will vote to decide if they want to keep the provision in place, or if they want to ban camping once again.
Many are sympathetic to homeless people and do not want to burden them, but others see their camping as a health and safety hazard. The ultimate question is what should we do about these people? Perhaps we won’t ever find a solution, but The Texas Horn sought to understand what it is like to be homeless in Austin. The following is a detailed account of just one of the two homeless Austinites we interviewed on 3/27/2021.
Chris Paul, 52, has been homeless since about 2009. After getting a degree from Texas State University, he became a thriving graphic designer with a publishing company for banks; however, he was let go due to the financial crisis of 2009. Shortly thereafter, he was laid off, divorced, and arrested. He moved to Austin via Del Valley County Jail and ended up on the streets. Chris told us he doesn’t mind being homeless, “It’s not that hard for me. I’m bipolar, but not out here”. He exercises all the time, which he believes is the best thing you can do when you have a mental illness. Much of his time today is devoted to his artwork, which he sells or trades on the streets. He lives in a six-man tent with a bed and, “the largest ottoman you’ve ever seen, big enough for my small friend to sleep on.” During the winter storm, he was offered a room, but chose to stay in his tent.
“What would you do if the city reinstated the camping ban?”
Chris stated that he doesn’t listen to any of these rules. He has often gotten stacks of tickets before, but he refused to pay any fines or do any community service. He also told us one of the drugs he uses, K2, is not illegal in Austin, but it is in the downtown area; he believes this was purposely done to target homeless people. Despite cops often telling him that pot is the better alternative, he says that he will continue to use K2.
“Do you like your lifestyle?”
He said that he has not taken the first step to get out of homelessness, and that he never tells anyone that he doesn’t try. It was at this point that he showed us his artwork and told us that other homeless people are often amazed at what he can create.
“What could the city do to help the homeless?”
“The city needs a PR, a liason.” In other words, someone to be a mediator between homeless people and city administrators. To Chris, the city doesn’t speak the same language. He compares their policy on homelessness to that of speaking to a deaf person: “Yell louder!”
“What is the biggest problem with the homeless community?”
Chris says that “the perception is that none of these people would want a job.” However, Chris believes that the problem is not that of desire, but that many of them could not hold onto a job in the first place.
“Do you believe that most people here are searching for a job?”
“No, most of the homeless lie when they say they need money for a bus pass and would not be able to answer if you asked them where they are going,” Chris said. He stated that it is also a lie that the homeless are hungry, “This town will feed the hell out of your face with gourmet food. I’ve eaten stuff here that when I was in the upper middle class, I couldn’t afford that.” Many of the homeless people are able to order off menus at local restaurants with food cooked by quality chefs. One meal he was given was pork loin, but he kept it to trade with the other homeless people.
This is where Chris gave us insight into the homeless trading network. “If you see a value in it, then it probably has a value in it.” If you have a plate of food or something, then you can walk down the street and trade it for something else. You just have to know the right people, and you can trade. This system also gave Chris a way to stop his shoplifting, which almost put him in jail. To fund his art projects, Chris used to shoplift, but he has now stopped and occasionally gets $500 from his dad who lives on the West Coast.
Chris’s perspective on Austin’s homeless problem should hopefully give us some insight not only on voting in the coming election but on ideas about how the city can address this problem. Many pass by these people and pity them, but many never wonder how we can truly help them. I would prefer to not give an opinion on this issue; however, it seems obvious enough that the way the city is handling this issue now is not working, and other solutions need to be evaluated.
Next week, we will cover the story of another homeless man with a rather different perspective on how Austin should address the homeless problem and how it has affected him.