Where do our homeless neighbors go?

Matt Dampier

On September 29-30, a fleet of dump trucks and sanitation workers cleared three of Austin’s underpasses—Cesar Chavez, 4th Street, and 7th Street. Like a crime scene, police taped off the area, while the rusted teeth of machines dismissed all refuse—mattresses, tents, broken bicycles, along with humans—from the area. I kept watch in my priest’s collar and could not help but file this moment of witness as our collective failure.

One police officer who responded to my question about the lack of sheltered housing commented, “We can’t say what we really think about this because we’d be reprimanded. There is no place for them to go. The city failed to keep its word.”

Jonathan and Jessica, two individuals in our city’s headcount of the homeless population, sat and watched from the side. This was the place they had known as home, and they were watching its destruction.

“What would you call this?” I asked another Austinite. “I’d call it violence.” The indignity witnessed did feel violent. The treasured possessions and the treasured-by-God humans are being told they are dispensable with no provision or pathway offered.

Through a majority vote in favor of Proposition B, we the people of Austin (not the police whom some protestors directed curses towards), forcibly displaced just under one hundred individuals over the course of two days this week. The problem, of course, is that the space that the HEAL initiative created reached capacity well before this past week’s events. Our shelters are full even when Covid complications don’t restrict beds. And while our mayor wants 3,000 beds in the next three years, it is simply not a present reality.

Within view of the 7th street encampment, a Picasso quote is painted on the base of a high-rise residential tower: “Everything you can imagine is real.” The contrast in this particular moment between the housed and the un-housed is almost too cliché to be believable.

One non-profit group camped out for days and offered protest and resistance. They found a week’s housing at a Motel 6 for about a dozen of the most vulnerable. Another non-profit has committed to arranging fresh cooked meals for these few. These efforts help provide an immediate fix—but without a place to transition, they perhaps only buffer the blow.

The vision of the just city we hear echoed throughout the Bible is to be a haven for those without homes (Lev 25:35), to be a city where all flourish shining brightly against the darkness of the world (Isa 58:7-8), to find that in serving the most vulnerable and marginalized among us we have served the Holy One, Jesus Christ, himself (Matt 25:34-40).

For Christians, our greatest command is to love the Lord and love our neighbor as ourselves. I wonder if we spend much time thinking about the granite that command really is. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Admittedly, it’s a lot harder than we may think to live this commandment consistently and fully. We can pretend to wear a cloak of goodness because we haven’t sincerely tried to love our neighbors as ourselves and discovered the shadows of our own hearts—our selfishness—in the process. And how do I love myself? I feed myself. I brush my teeth. I sleep in a warm bed. I can forgive myself after I’ve had a long day and I overindulge food or drink to ease my nerves.. Do I extend this basic care-of-self and compassionate forgiveness to these neighbors?

Rose, Melissa, Puzzle, Bella, Jermaine, Jonathan, Jessica, Pete. George. These are the names, not statistics, of the displaced. Their names—and their lives—matter. Austin, the city of diversity, inclusivity, the city where all are welcomed to be weirdly themselves, have we justly loved our neighbors?