Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

Homelessness in Austin

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, August 14, 2019 (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A visit to Camp R.A.T.T.

Camp R.A.T.T., Texas

In the 1990s, when the Great Millennial Tech Boom was really just getting going and the sudden presence of fresh shiny silver and black Volkswagen Jettas announced the arrival of an unexpected new kind of energetic high-momentum young money on the streets of Austin — formerly a sleepy college town famous for the stylishly unambitious young white people captured with anthropological precision in Richard Linklater’s Slacker — Interstate 35 formed the great imposing socioeconomic Berlin Wall between the high-on-irony undergraduate Caucasians eating spinach enchiladas and taking seven years to get a bachelor’s degree over at the University of Texas and the earnestly and unironically poor and brown and dangerous precincts of East Austin. Big Tech Money changed all that, and by the end of the 1990s Austin had a higher apartment-occupancy rate than New York City’s. Students looking for rentals would go around with brokers and their checkbooks (or their parents’ checkbooks) ready to sign a lease on the spot as soon as they found a half-decent place they could afford, while the young graduates working at Dell and AMD had oodles of new money to spend. Suddenly, all that sprawling East Austin real estate adjacent to the university and downtown became much more attractive, and the city’s residential developers and Realtors™ and hipsters and slackers all did the Berlin Wall thing in reverse, crossing the border from west to east, following a small vanguard of college students and artists who preceded them in search of low rents and joblessness opportunities. 

But the Jetta people, too, grew more and more wealthy and discriminating and finicky, and East Austin is now a whole ’nother thing entirely, a sunny warm little Brooklyn of vegan restaurants and yoga studios and fashionable craft-cocktail bars, with a clubhouse for the runners who work at Favor and a bunch of those weird cool-kid retail establishments that sell three unrelated things and have such names as “Jacoby’s Mercantile.” There’s a short line out the door on Saturday morning for an establishment offering “plant-based meals” and an understandably longer one — 30 deep at least — outside la Barbecue, which sells $15 Frito-pie sandwiches (“pulled pork, chopped beef, chipotle slaw, beans, Fritos, cheese and jalapeños, served on a Martin potato bun”) and brisket at $22.95 a pound. 

There’s another line down the street as the residents of a homeless camp on Cesar Chavez Boulevard line up for their Saturday-morning visit from Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a joint ministry of several downtown churches and volunteers that sends trucks into Austin’s streets 365 days a year with food, clothing, and other supplies. The scene is as bleak and ugly and oh-the-humanity as you’d expect, but there isn’t any evidence of the piles of feces and used heroin needles that Texas governor Greg Abbott described in his October ultimatum to Austin mayor Steve Adler, demanding that the city “demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis” by November 1 or expect intervention from the state government. There’s a “No Solicitation Area” sign nearby, a reminder of East Austin’s previous incarnation as a zone of infamy with street-corner drug dealers and open prostitution, but the encampment itself is quiet enough. (The neighborhood is, at least on this Saturday morning, heavily policed.) And while it is not exactly what you’d call spick-and-span, it isn’t the stuff of talk-radio horror stories, either. What it is, really, is simply out of place, a little island of filth and despair and old-fashioned human agony in the midst of all that carefully subtle hipster consumerism. 

Conservatives used to bitterly joke that homelessness is a problem in America only when there’s a Republican president — or that’s what you’d think, they said, if you knew the world only through the pages of the New York Times. The political tables have turned, with conservatives pointing to homelessness in cities from Washington to Los Angeles and San Francisco as the reification of despair in Democratic-run cities. 

Austin, a lost city as far as Republicans are concerned, has become Texas’s rhetorical whipping boy for homelessness and urban untidiness in part because it is a famously smug and insufferable citadel of Molly Ivins–style progressivism in the state that has been stereotyped as the heart of belligerent Trump-style Republicanism, making the capital city a culturally attractive target for Governor Abbott and other like-minded conservatives even though the situation here is not much different from what one sees in other Texas cities. A spokesman for Governor Abbott disputes that and maintains that the situation in Austin is dramatically different from that of, say, Houston or San Antonio. “We are not going to let Austin become another San Francisco,” he says. However Austin compares with the other big cities in Texas, it is worth keeping in mind that those cities are no less dominated by Democrats than Austin is. Donald Trump won only 35 percent of the vote in Dallas County and 26 percent in El Paso County. (He scored down in the teens in border counties such as Starr, worse than he did in Austin.) Houston hasn’t seen a Republican mayor since the 1980s. Julián Castro is at least as typical of Texas politics as Ted Cruz is. Austin and every other big city in Texas has big-city politics and big-city problems.

Senator Cruz may not be all that popular nationwide, but Austin sure as hell is. The local builders can’t build fast enough to keep up with demand: Austin has led the country in population growth every year for almost a decade — 6.7 percent of the people living in Austin in 2018 lived somewhere else in 2017. Overall, the population has grown by more than 20 percent in just eight years. Unlike much of the rest of Texas, Austin is a relatively difficult place for middle-income people. Like San Francisco and similar cities, Austin is run by nice rich white liberals who grow richer and whiter by the day. Median household income, already well above the national average, is growing at 6.6 percent annually. 

In 1990, African Americans made up 12.4 percent of Austin’s population. Today, they make up less than 8 percent of its residents — but 42 percent of its homeless. 

In reality, neither Austin nor Texas is quite what outsiders think: Austin’s politics is a progressivism of pronouns and greenwashed NIMBYism, a blend of campus-radical posturing and NPR-listening lifestyle liberalism that is a good deal less politically serious than the traditional city-machine politics and aggressive anti-capitalism that characterizes left-wing politics in larger Texas cities such as Houston and San Antonio. 

And Texas is, as everybody knows, a solidly Republican state, except for Austin . . . and Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, and practically every other city of any consequence: Ted Cruz lost Fort Worth to Robert Francis O’Rourke in 2018, leaving Lubbock as the largest reliably Republican-voting city in the state. Texas is in many ways a New Deal state, one that was until the 1990s mostly run by relatively conservative Democrats (Rick Perry dutifully flacked for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 1988 before switching parties, though it is a fiction that he was Gore’s Texas chairman) and capable of electing a genuine progressive such as Ann Richards to its highest office. The new terror over homelessness is at least in part a Republican political indictment of cities per se and of urban political and cultural habits — which are the major long-term threat to Republican power in Texas and nationally. 

As local groups providing services to the homeless run the numbers, Austin has less homelessness relative to its population than do similar cities such as Denver and Seattle. Austin counts about 2,200 homeless out of a population of just under 1 million; San Francisco, with a population of 884,000, counts more than 8,000 homeless.

But while the severity of Austin’s problem may be exaggerated, those homeless camps are a real thing. Republicans aren’t making them up. You see them in quickly developing neighborhoods such as the area surrounding the intersection of State Highway 183 and Burnet Road, where a young woman in a black sports bra and cargo pants the color of sadness goes wheeling and staggering madly through traffic outside an encampment of tents and carefully locked-up bicycles under the overpass. Nearby, seedy-looking CBD shops and massage parlors do business. 

Mainly, though, the homeless are being pushed out of the shiniest parts of town, into places such as Montopolis, a 19th-century village on the site of a former freedmen’s community that eventually was absorbed into East Austin and populated largely by low-income black and Latino residents. “One could trace, like rings in a tree, the modern history of Montopolis by the types of affordable housing built in each decade,” Michael Barnes wrote in a 2016 essay in the Austin American-Statesman. The nearby Bastrop Highway, which is currently undergoing a major expansion, looks set to become the city’s new Berlin Wall of money and college credentials. Take a right at the intersection with Montopolis Drive, which runs through the heart of the old community, and you’ll arrive at a roadside sign discreetly announcing Camp R.A.T.T.

‘I’m a weekend mom, now,” says T-Boog. She’s building a firepit in front of her tent for cooking and warmth, assembling stray bricks and fragments of cinderblock. Her daughter, who is listening to music on the stereo of a car parked nearby, turns the music down and turns her face away. T-Boog has been living here at Camp R.A.T.T. — “Responsible Adult Transition Town” — for a few weeks. It is a new facility, though “facility” is probably not quite the right word. As the political volleys between Governor Abbott and Mayor Adler went back and forth, with the city resolving and then unresolving to enforce its “urban camping” ordinance — as though this were about camping — the inevitable question came up: If Austin clears out the homeless camps, then where do the homeless go? The answer the state came up with is five acres of blasted dusty state-owned land near Montopolis Drive, walled and gated and concertina-wired and overseen by two smiling and friendly agents from the state’s Division of Emergency Management who normally are tasked with managing the aftereffects of hurricanes and tornadoes rather than the slow-motion man-made disaster whose effects are being funneled here into Camp R.A.T.T., which the residents originally had called “Camp Abbott” before settling on the more aspirational name they’ve given their community. 

This is not T-Boog’s first experience with tent life. Before, she lived in an encampment “in the woods,” she says. A couple of large settlements have been discovered over the years in Austin’s greenbelt. Camp R.A.T.T. gives its residents some respite that they do not enjoy elsewhere. They are living here with the state’s begrudging consent, so they do not have to worry about being chased away from whatever semipermanent arrangements they can make, and there are daily deliveries of water and food in the form of MREs. Like all of the Camp R.A.T.T. residents I speak to, T-Boog is not an Austin native. She comes most recently from Orlando but prefers the less swampy climate here. One of her neighbors comes from San Diego but has in recent years traveled all over the country, from California to the Carolinas. T-Boog says she has a hard time keeping a job because she always wants to try new things. She applied for an online degree program in “entrepreneurship” but was unable to enroll because she doesn’t have regular access to an Internet connection. Things went bad for her after a divorce. Her daughter comes to visit her on the weekends, but she doesn’t let her stay overnight. “It’s not safe,” she says. 

T-Boog is a classic kind of American delusional. “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” Ronald Wright wrote in his History of Progress. T-Boog is living in a tent but imagines reinventing herself as a serial entrepreneur. Another resident speaks of his plans to do something “with media.” 

There are obvious downsides to tent life, T-Boog says, but there are parts of it she likes, too. “I like the self-sufficiency,” she explains. “Like building this firepit. I like doing things myself.” It’s a funny kind of “self-sufficiency,” of course, with daily rations delivered by the state, but T-Boog insists that in Camp R.A.T.T. she is “free” in a way that she can’t be “out there.” 

And maybe she is. 

The people in Camp R.A.T.T. have established a political committee and put forward a few community leaders to represent them and their interests, though their agenda remains, for the moment, pretty vague. They have organized a committee to canvass for donations and another to organize work details in the camp. The state agents say they do not know anything about this, being aware only that the organization effort exists. “That’s something they came up with themselves,” one says. 

Among the residents of Camp R.A.T.T., there is a great deal of the painfully familiar passive language (and passive thinking) characteristic of the American underclass: One Camp R.A.T.T. resident speaks of losing his previous rental arrangement after “the altercation . . . that occurred,” as though he had been only a spectator. And there also is a great deal of the sudden veering turns into crackpottery typical of conversation with people who are suffering from untreated mental illness. Barry, an older man living at Camp R.A.T.T. who is hopeful that he will soon transition into a stable housing arrangement, is friendly and calm when telling his story, and then casually remarks that U.S. cities have gone into “lockdown” because of “something happening in Iraq.” 

Matt Mollica, the director of ECHO, a nonprofit that works with the homeless, contests the widely held view that homelessness is mainly a mental-health and addiction issue. Of course homelessness and mental illness overlap, he says, but homelessness is itself something like an addiction in the sense that certain people are “predisposed to it, like being predisposed to a medical condition.” Bearing in mind all of the usual caveats that apply to self-reported data, we might say that homeless people in Austin are much more likely to report a physical disability keeping them from work than mental-health or substance-abuse problems. At the same time, there are millions of people who lose their jobs, experience mental-health problems, become disabled, or get thrown out of their apartments without becoming homeless. Some people bounce back, some people fall and can’t get up. The overwhelming majority of people who are homeless in Austin would prefer to be in regular housing of some kind, but they cannot quite get there. 

“Folks don’t understand homelessness,” Mollica says. “It’s hard for them to put themselves in that experience.” 

Properly understood, what the 100-plus residents of Camp R.A.T.T. — living here on state land, next to a mobile-home dealership that the people who drank craft cocktails last night in East Austin see only from a distance on their way to the airport — have built is a refugee camp for a particularly American kind of refugee. Maybe they are, as Mollica says, victims of “structural inequities in our society” — refugees from heartless American capitalism. Maybe they are refugees from the notionally well-meaning and certainly well-heeled lifestyle liberalism of Austin (and San Francisco and Seattle, etc.) where the Bernie Bros and Elizabeth Warren donors flit between English-usage crusades and sexual crusades and social-justice crusades, with breaks for meals at Jeffrey’s (Petrossian caviar, 50g, $300) and Oaxacan negronis at Midnight Cowboy (make a reservation, and be sure to turn off your cell phone), while keeping a careful and not entirely dissatisfied eye on soaring local property values. Certainly some of the homeless have been failed by our lamentably dysfunctional mental-health system, which has been hobbled both by shallow liberationist who-are-we-to-judge? counterculture attitudes and by the anti-tax penny-pinching that has piggybacked on it. 

But there’s something else happening here, too: These are refugees from America anno Domini 2020, Americans who cannot or simply will not deal with the complexities and administrative burdens of modern life, whether those are the bureaucratic intricacies of the welfare state or the lack of subsistence-wage jobs for people who cannot quite bring themselves to be punctual, polite, or halfway respectable-looking. They’ve always been there, but the contrast grows sharper next to the burgeoning prosperity and ever-more-precious early-empire refinement of cities such as Austin. The philanthropists behind Mobile Loaves & Fishes have built a “village” outside of Austin in which the homeless can rent tiny houses and trailers, with many of them earning their rent money from on-site jobs. Their hearts are in the right place, but what they are building isn’t a village any more than Camp R.A.T.T. is a town — these are reservations for poor people, a way to keep America’s 21st-century misfits and zero-marginal-product workers from taking a dump on the sidewalk in front of places with good breakfast tacos or “plant-based meals” or locally brewed pilsners. The people who are fighting and winning the class war in these United States have Bernie Sanders campaign signs in front of their tastefully modern $1.5 million Dwell-worthy East Austin homes. Rich white progressive America is America without mercy. 

From the credit-reporting system to the criminal-justice system, our country, generous and dynamic as it often is, can be a remarkably unforgiving place: Try renting an apartment from the kind and gentle and empathetic people in Austin with a felony conviction on your curriculum vitae, even if it is 20 years old, or as a 50-year-old marginally employed man without any real convincing or solid references. The self-congratulatory Keep Austin Weird ethic looks very odd indeed, and contemptible, too, when it is coldly contemplated from the intersection where Montopolis Drive meets the Bastrop Highway, on a lovely cloudless Austin winter morning as a white Bentley Continental (those Volkswagens no longer adequately represent Austin’s nouveaux riches) goes zooming toward the airport, whooshing past the wretched unassimilated old man panhandling on the corner, silent and stoical and signifying exactly what he intends with his big dirty placard reading “Running on Empty.”

This article appears as “The Lost City of Montopolis” in the February 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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