Recently Andrea Ball, a journalist with The Austin American-Statesman newspaper, wrote about changes made to Austin’s “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. There had already been a sit-lie ordinance since 2005, one that included exceptions for people camping out to buy concert tickets, or watching a parade. When you look at it from a certain angle, that’s cold and harsh. Sitting on the sidewalk was okay for music lovers (with money to spend) and parade-goers (who cheer as politicians ride past and wave), but not okay for some homeless person who might have just gotten out of the hospital, or gone weeks without a decent night’s sleep. Ball writes,
Under the new rules, people with medical problems — such as diabetes, mental illness, heart problems or cerebral palsy — can sit or lie down for up to 30 minutes. If someone receives a ticket, they must to prove to the court that they have a disability and were experiencing a medical problem that forced them to rest at that moment. People can also sit down if they are in line to receive services…
Actually, anyone who receives a ticket is urged to bring it to Richard R. Troxell at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). It says so on the laminated list of guidelines published in English and Spanish, and distributed by House the Homeless. The guide spells out the law, and gives examples of the types of disabilities that might make a person need to sit down once in a while, and enumerates the kinds of documentation that could prevent a legal jam. On the day when they went into effect, Ball told her audience how the new rules came about:
Efforts to revamp the sit-lie ordinance began in the spring of 2010 after homeless people were ticketed for sitting down in line while waiting for service at a downtown health clinic… Homeless advocates claimed the practice was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because some of the people being ticketed had disabilities and the city needed to make reasonable accommodations for them.
Despite assurances from civic leaders that Austin does not criminalize homelessness, the sit-lie ordinance was enforced mainly against that population. Very many people who would not otherwise have been involved with the criminal justice system were ticketed and punished under this ordinance, for the crime of not having any other place to be. Ball goes on to relate how Richard and his colleagues counted the 2009 sit-lie tickets, and found that 96% of them had been issued to people experiencing homelessness. (Richard adds, “It is my belief that 100% of the people receiving these tickets were perceived to be homeless at the time of ticket issuance. I was only able to verify that 96% were experiencing homelessness at the time of the ticketing.)
This is a clue to why House the Homeless is such an effective organization. It herds the ducks into a row and presents facts to back up its claims and demands. For examples of the group’s thorough information-gathering methods, and how Richard uses the numbers to make strong cases, please see the “2011 Health Sleep Study” and “No Sit/No Lie: Troxell’s Testimony.”
The title of Andrea Ball’s article, by the way, is “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks.” When we can read a sentence like that and not even blink, it’s indicative of a sad state of affairs. If a dictator were in charge, it would be tempting to sarcastically say, “Wow! People who have nowhere to live, can rest on the ground for half an hour if they’re sick. What a guy! Give that man a Nobel Peace Prize!”
But it wasn’t a dictator, it was a whole city. An entire city needed to be shamed and threatened with a lawsuit so that a disabled homeless person might officially be allowed to sit down. When a special dispensation is needed for that, society is really out of kilter. When the granting of such a permission is hailed as progress, it’s a sign that things have gone terribly wrong. Not to single out Austin — it’s like this in too many cities. As Richard says, “These laws are all over the country, and none of them make allowances for people with disabilities.” Homelessness is the new leprosy.
This point of view is amply reflected in some of the comments added by local readers to Ball’s story. “Filthy… stench… drunk… drugged… insane… junkies… psychotic… human scum…” One commentator would prefer to see Sixth Street napalmed, then bulldozed, all in the name of decency, of course. Others take the opportunity to rag on the sons and daughters of the Lone Star state. “Amazonbob” says,
Texans love to think of themselves as rough-tough cowboys…but somehow nothing seems as frightening to them as a bum. No wonder they need legislation allowing them to carry a glock in each hand and a machine gun in their rear end… there are homeless, emaciated, ragged bums in the world!
As for homeless people, if all Texans can do is focus their considerable hatred… at the most vulnerable people in society, they deserve their national reputation as cruel, crude, buffoons.
And a level-headed citizen called “Parkhill” says,
My friends, we live in perilous economic times: be careful whom you loathe because no one is immune from hard times.
Source: “New rules allow homeless people with disabilities to sit on sidewalks ,” The Austin American-Statesman, 04/30/11
Image by Ed Yourdon, used under its Creative Commons license.