Concerns regarding panhandlers being “too near” the University of Texas campus are nothing new, but since the senseless and brutal death of UT student Haruka Weiser April 3 those fears have been compounded. The debate has been reignited, and this time it burns bright with indifference disguised as worry.
Tensions are understandably going to be high after the first campus murder of the millennium. While understandable, emotional fragility and fear are never excuses to devolve into aggressive reactionaries campaigning against a group of people, as if homelessness is a crime.
In an April 12 Texas Tribune article many parents expressed their discontent with UT’s apparent homeless problem. From petitions to remove the homeless from Guadalupe Street to unsubstantiated rhetoric about the homeless’ inherent “criminal element,” parents and students are in an ideologically backward uproar.
When all is said and done, this behavior is nothing more than a disgusting display of scapegoating. And in the grand tradition of condemnation, an entire group of people are buried deeper in the burrows where they unfortunately reside due to the isolated actions of an individual.
People have been conditioned through social and cultural norms to disregard those who have become the victims of economic misfortune and financial instability. America’s backward “bootstraps philosophy” has led many to see homeless people are nothing more than lazy beggars victimized by their own ineptitude. In actuality, their situations are a lot more nuanced.
Substance abuse, lack of affordable housing and mental illness are among the leading causes of homelessness according to a 2008 U.S. Conference of Mayors study. Homelessness can be alleviated through expanded funding for treating the mentally ill, equal access to rehabilitation centers and affordable housing units. A conversation about how to address the homelessness epidemic is much more conscientious, especially when juxtaposed against the notion that officials should force them to less desirable parts of town, aka far from the vicinity of the privileged.
Given the fact that the alleged murderer, 17-year-old Meechaiel Cremer, is reported to be mentally ill, redirecting anger and passion toward addressing overarching concerns seems to be necessary to securing long-term remedies. Placing a tattered Band-Aid on a bullet wound does not a solution make.
Criminality is not solely relegated to those of socio-economic disadvantage. There are just as many criminals on a given campus as there are in the bordering parts of town. Approximately 99 percent of sex offenders in single-victim incidents are male, according to a 1997 study. Ironically, when instances of sexual assault occur on campuses across the country, no one is demanding the removal of men for being the disproportionate perpetrators. No matter the group, generalizations are wrong.
It should go without saying that safety is important. The absolute wrong way to go about ensuring security, however, is by isolating homeless populations away from resources such as churches that offer panhandler services. These churches are the reason the homeless congregate on the Drag.
Frankly, many of the demands of some parents, students and worrywarts reek of entitlement. Just because these particular university students have the privilege of investing in an education—something majority of Americans are not afforded—does not mean that the landscape of the city should be altered in their favor. Especially when those alterations are reactions meant to demonize and other an already vulnerable community.
A broken clock is right twice a day, and while the basis for the complaints waddles in a swamp of classist hubris, other ideas such as increased patrolling and lighting are beneficial. Take Texas State for example, whose Student Government passed three pieces of legislation April 11 in hopes of making the university a bit safer. One requires additional 911 call boxes, including mandatory maintenance, at scarce locations and another will include additional lighting at Den Food Court and Bobcat Village.
Legislation like this illustrates a productive method of mitigating safety concerns and offering students a responsive sign of relief. Safety is important, but should never come at the costs of a group of people’s dignity and personhood. For all of those seeking to besmirch the homeless, channel that anger toward positive change.
After all, homeless populations are not trash to be disposed of whenever unjustifiably offended parties deem them bothersome and general aesthetic displeasures. They are people, so treat them with respect. Rationality trumps reactionaries every time.