Photo: Jana Birchum
On April 12, 2016, the Texas Tribune published a piece about parental responses to the horrific murder of the University of Texas at Austin (UT) freshman Haruka Weiser. In short, the story goes: parents of UT students understandably want their daughters and sons to be safe in the aftermath of a horrible murder on campus last week. The person the police believe responsible for this awful act is homeless. Parents have suggested that homeless populations be removed from “the Drag” (Guadalupe Street near UT) through loitering and camping bans and have also called for churches along the Drag to stop providing services to homeless populations. I believe this is a misguided direction for the University and the City of Austin to take. It is immoral and ineffective to criminalize homelessness. Furthermore, banning religious institutions from serving the poor infringes on Constitutional rights.
What happened the week of April 3, 2016 was a horrifying tragedy for the UT community. I feel terrible for Haruka’s family in Oregon and her family in the Theatre Department. But the worst thing we can do in the aftermath of tragedy is to overreact. Absolutely, I would like to see my campus be better lit at night and have more options to be mobile when it is dark outside. Absolutely, I would like to see Texas’s broken foster care system and fragmented social services system repaired. But I have several problems with removing the homeless from nearby areas and forcing churches to no longer offer services to the poor.
First, Austin has many demons as a city, most of which related to our history of economic and racial segregation. But Austin does not criminalize homelessness the way other major cities do. We don’t ban camping or throw people in jail for loitering. It is not who we are as a city, and it is not who we are as a university community. “Keeping Austin weird” in part means taking care of our own and not making people whose lives are difficult even harder by criminalizing their circumstances.
Second, removing the nearby homeless will not make students safer. I understand that recent events compels us, whether we are parents or students or officials, that wants to find ways to make our campus safer. I know that I’ve irrationally changed my behavior by avoiding being on campus at night. But, like Pastor John Elford, I have never seen hard evidence that homeless individuals are more likely to commit violent crimes compared to, let’s say, college students. Remember, there is an epidemic of sexual assault against college women in this country, but there have been no serious suggestions that men be removed from college campuses. Instead, there has been a concerted effort to bring an end to the culture that creates epidemic proportions of sexual violence against far too many women in college (and everywhere) . Similarly, there should now be a concerted effort to ensure transient individuals receive services and support that brings them back into society, not an effort to push them further to the margins. There is also the fact that life comes with risk. I count on the City of Austin, the State of Texas, and my University to keep me safe. I hope they make reasonable changes to improve public safety and social services, including foster care, in the wake of this tragedy. But I also accept that I can never be 100 percent safe.
Third, there is the problem of religious freedom. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects religious institutions from undue burdens imposed by the federal government, and the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates those protections at the state and local level. Churches provide incredibly important community services and functions. They are civic institutions that build a sense of community and can help fill holes in the social safety net and/or make the social safety net more responsive to those in need. Telling churches that they must stop providing services and building community because we are afraid seems like a major impediment to the freedom of religion of pastors and priests who believe in serving God by helping the least among these. Whenever we limit freedom, we have to have an excellent reason. Irrational fear of the homeless is not a good reason to interfere with the functioning of churches.
The world is sometimes a scary place, but we cannot allow our fears to dictate how we treat one another. Criminalizing homelessness is an irrational and immoral policy which would not make our campus safer.
Edited by: Joel Dishman