Homelessness in Austin

AustinSkylineLouNeffPoint-2010-03-29-bAbout a month and a half ago, I started a new job. One of the cool aspects of it is where it is located – downtown Austin. I work almost everyday a couple of blocks from the Capital Building. As downtown’s go, Austin has one of the best. It’s clean. It’s historic. It’s beautiful….And, it’s got the most expensive parking I’ve ever seen.

The company I work for, though, pays for us to park in a parking lot located about 3 blocks away. It sits right next to the Salvation Army where you can see  hundreds of the homeless people lined up along the buildings and roads every single day, wandering through our lot, sitting in the shade of our various cars, and from what I have witnessed, just existing, not living.

It’s a heartbreaking thing to witness every day. Austin has become a kind pols_naked-37254of mecca for the homeless. It stays pretty warm here throughout the year. It isn’t illegal to panhandle along the lines of literally thousands of cars that exit IH35. Because traffic here is so congested, you can find yourself hit up for money by several people at almost any of the major intersections, and if you find it hard to make eye contact with them, this is torture because they have plenty of time to get you to pay attention to them.

I have always had a soft spot for homeless people. When I imagine what that must feel like, it literally terrorizes me. But then, I started a job downtown.

18_3-smThe first week I started, as I was walking the three blocks to my office, a homeless man jumped right in front of me from nowhere and screamed at me to give him a cigarette. He’s seen my pack in my hand, and he decided scaring me was his best bet at getting one. It was, because I didn’t want to die some retarded death over something that ironically, is slowly probably killing me but in a much more enjoyable, non-bloody way.

I like to think I don’t judge any one group of people by what a few of them do, so I chalked that one up an isolated occurrence and a good learning lesson for me. Don’t carry something out in the open I don’t intend to share with them. But then it began happening daily.

cn_fairchange_comp1Since that first time, I’m kind of bullied by some of the homeless around downtown. Some of them demand I give them my lunch, or go buy them a bottle of water, or give them money. Never am I asked please, or even asked much at all. And I’m not the only person that gets accosted when they walk to and from their cars over there. I’ve never seen displaced people be so threatening.

The situation made me think though. I used to think that Austin letting people panhandle anywhere they wanted was kind of cool. You know, compassionate and all that. But now, I wonder if we are doing these people a disservice by not actively trying to better their situations instead of allowing them to congregate in large numbers downtown. The competition for a measly dollar or someone’s leftover lunch is making these people desperate and surly. I can’t think competition is healthy when it comes to the homeless. What I thought was compassionate and patient is really overwhelmed and helpless on the part of Austin.

It’s been really, really tight financially lately for DJ and I, which has meant we can’t give out money to beggars like we would like to. But by being called names, or screamed at, or threatened by the few, I’ve come to find I’m no longer making eye contact with people who hold up signs asking for help. I find I only want to give to people who ask nicely, or who don’t ask me for anything at all.

jobI wonder why we tend to feel instant guilt when we look at someone who has ended up on the street. Do we all silently give ourselves excuses for why their problems aren’t ours to fix? Because I do. Because of these last few weeks, I find myself struggling to find compassion. I find myself angry every time a hungry person curses at me for my apparent lack of concern for another human being’s welfare.

I gotta tell you. I don’t like feeling like I’m getting desensitized to the suffering of another person. But how exactly does one keep themselves from it?

~ Bird

Author: Catherine aka "Bird"

Marketing Specialist Recruiter Freelance Writer Blogger

8 thoughts on “Homelessness in Austin”

  1. Sorry Bird. Being down on their luck gives no-one the right to forget their manners, nor does it give someone the right to bully another for something they want.They don’t just do themselves a disservice but do it to the whole of the disenfranchised because people soon start to ignore them all and treat them alike. Yet many of the homeless have the same dignity as the homed and are much more deserving of our help.
    I think the ones who scare and bully you are quite likely to have been the ones who would do that even if they were employed and in a home of their own. You’re the last person who deserves that kind of treatment and it shouldn’t happen. I know it won’t really stop you giving what you can, when you can to help the homeless get by. It will take more than just you to come up with a permanent solution for them like bringing back some of the jobs that have been sent overseas to create more jobs at home.
    xxx Sending Hugs Galore xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I lived in Washington, DC for 20 years and regularly struggled with the same thoughts you have. How do you balance compassion with also a need to protect oneself? For years I thought it best to make eye contact, smile occasionally, and always say in a polite response that I had no money to give (conversely, I would also try to be polite and respectful when I did dig into my pocket for a coin). But over time — more than just a few years I should add — I found the level of hostility and anger to just be so off-putting. I decided at one point that perhaps I needed to volunteer at a soup kitchen to reconcile all of my conflicting thoughts. That did help a bit because the people who came were so grateful, and I felt good giving something. But I still had to return to those streets again to walk to work, come back home, use the subway, go grocery shopping, etc.

    I never did figure out the right balance. I think in the end you just try to just have a good heart, which in your case it’s obvious that you do. Keep the faith! – Marty

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  3. I would find it extremely difficult also.. because I know many of the homeless are there for things that just ‘happened’… but I also believe that at some point there must have been a turning point where they just don’t try to change things anymore. And I don’t think that they should be ‘guilting’ people to give them money…etc.

    Many or most of us have had times when the struggles of life seemed overwhelming, and the thought of just giving up or not trying anymore has been present. But we can’t give up…

    I too would eventually, just keep walking and if I was to give anyone something it would be because I could.. and they were not asking or bullying me into it.

    It’s got to be hard for you though every day. It’s too bad you didn’t have someone to walk with you… Diane

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  4. I think what may drive some of that anger and resentment is the perspective of “them” the housed and able to function and “us” the disenfranchised. More than anything else, what people who are experiencing homelessness need is advocacy towards fundamental policy changes so that people can actually afford a place to live on the jobs that are available with low skills or disabilities. If this step is truly taken, it will become much more clear who is choosing a nomadic lifestyle and who is just begin neglected. Our country has become very individualistic and service-to-self oriented and with that, the care and concern for the vulnerable is a battle of wills for sure. Keep your head and heart in the game and you’ll be just fine, no one, regardless of their circumstances has a right to treat you badly but remember that they may have experienced the same treatment from strangers for so long that they no longer feel human, so no longer have the will to act like it.

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