I’m not a professional photographer, artist, journalist, or reporter, I’m a poet interested in language — how it bends, morphs, twists over time, how it shapes our perspective of things.
I’m not sure when I first saw the phrase “homeless camping,” but it may have been on a December 2020 campaign flyer in my mail, reminding voters in my district of the runoff between Alison Alter and Jennifer Virden.
Paid for by Fight for Austin, it listed Virden as “Good for Austin” because she pledged to reinstate the homeless camping ban and restore the $150 million cut to the Austin Police Departmnt budget. Alter was of course “bad for Austin” for supporting both. A good/bad dichotomy, intended to make it easy for voters to choose. The flyer fascinated me and that’s why I kept it — a good old timey WANTED poster, with Alter, a pearl-wearing Billy the Kid, accused of making Austin less safe.
Alter won the runoff, but her lead against Virden was slim enough (577 votes) to signal that the issues that divided the candidates weren’t going away anytime soon.
Winter Storm Uri, Feb 2021
I stood at the kitchen sink. I’d just filled three drinking glasses with about 24 ounces of boiled water and was trying to figure out how I was going to wash a sink full of dirty dishes. My hand and legs were shaking because my brain was in Seattle, June 2014.
Day 3 in the homeless shelter, and I was starting to stink. I stood in front of the only working shower in the women’s restroom. The stall was curtain-less and grimy. The water pressure dribbled out like a garden hose on low. Holding a small bar of soap, I stood watching the water, paralyzed. What was I supposed to do next? I’d forgotten, then and there, the most basic order of operations for how to perform the simplest task.
My social worker suggested the Y instead. A day later, I walked into their pristine women’s locker room, past the sauna, past the jacuzzi, to the shower stalls, which all had curtains, soap dispensers, and glorious hot water.
After the storm clears enough to get a decent foothold, I walk around my neighborhood. I live in a wealthy zip code: 78705. Most homes in the area easily fetch a million dollars. I walk down one street that smells like a sewer. I hear generators. I see one family has moved out of their three-story home into their souped-up RV. I wonder if they describe their condition as camping, when nothing about the freeze feels like a vacation.
I was living at the shelter when my social worker explained that there are various levels of homelessness. I was experiencing something called transitional homelessness, meaning I was living in a shelter due to an unforeseen life event, but it was just temporary. I was on several waiting lists to move into housing, it was just a matter of waiting until a slot opened up. Other types of homelessness are episodic, meaning an individual ends up homeless several times, and chronic, which means that an individual has lived without a home for a long time, typically a year or more.
After the snow and ice have completely melted and grass returns to yellow and green, I spot a Jennifer Virden yard sign. I can’t stop thinking about how she and so many of my neighbors see homelessness as a threat to public safety, forgetting that people who are homeless are a part of the public, too. I wonder, if after spending days without electricity and water, any of my neighbors feel empathy for those, who experience these issues daily.
I was born in a city that prides itself on being outdoorsy. A subset of Seattle-ites is known for their Gore-Tex rain jackets, loyalty to all things Patagonia — they like to hike, ski, snowboard, camp and charge outdoor gear on their North Face credit card — and pack it all into their Subaru Outbacks. Over a campfire, they brew premium coffee that costs around $20 for a 12-ounce bag. I could have joined them. I could have said things like “We’re going up to the mountain this weekend.” It’s possible, in the future, I will say this exact sentence and it will surprise the heck outta me.
I hate camping, even the word itself causes aversion. I call my mother and ask her how long we lived in the tent.
“Two and a half months — seems like it was longer, doesn’t it.” To be clear, we weren’t stranded under an overpass, cars roaring overhead, we were on a five-acre plot of land in Ferndale, Washington, leasing-to-own until the single-wide trailer my mom put money down on was hers. The two-room tent with my mom, stepdad, two sisters, and two dogs was supposed to be temporary. After weeks of waking up in wet sleeping bags, slugs ascending the tent’s exterior, showering at the state park, and doing our business in a Folgers can in a shed/outhouse, something told me we were headed past temporary. I found syringes in the glove compartment and knew, at only 13, that my stepfather was using again. The owner of the land sold it out from under my mother. The guy she bought the trailer from took her money to retire in Mexico. My stepdad drained what reminded in her account just before he went into rehab. From that point on, I remember short-term rentals, hotels, stays with family, and that I didn’t like camping any more.
As a writer, I dread getting things wrong. The sense of fear — that I’ll misrepresent a situation, a person, a sentence, a word — stems from the understanding that sometimes my ability to think is compromised by the medication I take to keep my Bipolar-1 disorder in check. I have to read carefully, slowly, and when I scan the Save Austin Now website, I read several times the three things Prop B aims to achieve:
- Reinstate the law on public camping citywide to restore the safety and beauty of our great city.
- Reinstate the ordinance on lying down/sitting on public sidewalks for downtown, the UT campus, and the off-campus area surrounding it.
- Deliver safety and security by introducing a law against aggressive panhandling at night citywide. (From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.)
As I read these sentences over and over, I do not see a solution to homelessness, but temporary relief for those who can’t bear to look at it.
I’ve lived in other three cities with high rates of homelessness: Seattle, Portland, and New York City. Years before I would end up homeless myself, I had a conversation with an upper-middle class couple that I’ll never forget.
We were sitting on their porch in Portland having a summer salad. They were kind enough to let me stay in their home while they headed off to Italy and I looked for a place to live and a job. I was 27 and got the housesitting gig because I had a friend who’d graduated from Harvard with the couple’s daughter — they were both drama majors. Somehow the topic turned to how bad it was getting downtown — the number of homeless people growing each year (This was 2007, just as the financial crisis was starting to cause trouble.) The woman, who had been so kind to me, told me about an experiment her daughter had come up with for drama class. She dressed herself in rags, made herself look homeless, and sat on the street looking doleful and sad, asking people for change on the sidewalks of New York. “This beautiful young girl. And no one even looked at her!” I’d seen pictures of her daughter, beautiful, blond, and white. “Just imagine,” she said, shaking her head.
I’m in a room full of bunkbeds — no sheets, no pillows, because both breed lice. The AC’s up high, and I’m right under the vent. I have one blanket but it looks like it’s been assembled with dryer lint — not even a proper rectangle and there are holes my big toe gets stuck in at night. Two women are having a screaming match at 2 a.m. One won’t stop talking to herself — the other on the top bunk across from her can’t stand it anymore. Another woman, with a voice louder than both, tells them both to shut up. For a moment, the room goes quiet. Then the woman who has an illness she can’t control starts up again. At most, I remember getting three hours in. I’d go to the library and try to make myself look like a student. People who nod off are told “there’s no sleeping.” If it’s a clear day, I head up to the park and try to nap. Sometimes I nod off for a half hour or so until a dog barks, an ambulance goes by, a helicopter hovers overhead.
I realize I have a new problem, I have to use the bathroom.
Make Austin beautiful again.
The Save Austin Now website has undergone several changes since I first looked at it. At one time, there was an image of a white woman on a paddleboard, waiting supposedly for her city to return to its once beautiful state. Now there are comments from citizens about all the things they’ve seen and experienced that make them believe that ending homeless camping will make them safe.
I don’t want to want to look at these tents either. I don’t want to see public urination, defecation, or sidestep needles on the street. I don’t want to see anyone’s genitals. I don’t want to see people copulating. I don’t want to see the sort of chaos that comes from objects scattered everywhere on the streets. I don’t want anyone to ask me for money.
I don’t want to see a man in a paper hospital gown board a bus without shoes, holding a bag containing all he owns. I don’t want to see a woman asleep in the triple digit heat, the skin on her face peeling. I don’t want to see a young man covered in mud emerge from the creek where he’s been sleeping.
I want those who have power to house people without homes. I want voters to understand that Prop B is a giant street sweeper that will clear some tents but allow the fallout of this horrific year to continue.
Originally, I planned on doing extensive research and reporting for this essay. Numbers, facts, quotes that impresses people. But all my flagging energy would allow was to work with the material of my own life. My worst fear is that what happened to me in 2014 could happen again.
My story is not unique. I had a bipolar episode and was involuntarily hospitalized for a little over four weeks. That was enough time to lose my job, my internship, and my apartment. I lived at a shelter until a spot in “standard supportive housing” opened up, and I lived in that housing for a year.
This did not happen to me during a pandemic. All throughout COVID people without housing having been living in a nightmare. Language that criminalizes homelessness only lengthens that nightmare. Housing for all should not be a dream, a distant civic wish-list item, it should be a right no matter who you are, where you came from, the color or your skin, or how you ended up on the streets in the first place. Public safety includes everyone.
Julie Poole’s debut book of poems “Bright Specimens” (Deep Vellum) publishes in May. Inspired by the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center at the University of Texas, the largest herbaria in the Southwestern United States, “Bright Specimen” is a poetical index, an exploration of the history and science of human interaction with the natural world.