Apr 26, 2016

Petitions Draw Attention to UT Area Homeless

Reporting Texas

Since the slaying of a first-year student in early April and subsequent charges against a homeless teenager, the homeless people who congregate near the University of Texas at Austin campus are now facing a lot more scrutiny.

A petition to discourage homeless people from congregating near campus had been in place for six months,  but the killing of Haruka Weiser gave it fresh currency. Yet not all students want to see them gone: There is a counter-petition circulating in their defense.

Weiser’s killing has exposed tension about the presence of homeless people around campus. Weiser was slain April 5, with her body found two days later on the east side of campus behind the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center. The suspect in the case is a homeless teenager, Meechaiel Criner. Austin police say the new apprehension about the homeless community might be overblown. And some homeless people say they are being cast as criminals.

Tanner Golden, a 20-year-old UT economics major from Fort Worth, started an online petition to address the homeless populations near campus as an assignment for a government class. After Weiser was killed, the number of signatures exploded.

“I was very surprised that it had so many signatures, because for the last few months it only had the original 15 I asked from my friends,” said Golden. It now has more than 2,800 signatures.

“I used to have to walk through [Guadalupe Street] and I’ve had homeless people come up to me and say ‘Hey, I’m going to [expletive] kill you’ – for no reason,” Golden said. Those interactions were Golden’s motive behind the petition, which now calls on the University of Texas Police Department to respond more proactively to assaults on campus. He also wants food bank operators to set up operations away from West Campus to divert the homeless.

An online counter-petition, “Ban Tanner Golden from Guadalupe,” was posted in response and has collected 1,880 signatures.

“Tanner Golden should not wonder whether he can make it from point A to B without seeing someone who couldn’t maintain their mortgage payments,” wrote 26-year-old comedian Will Dwyer in the petition he started on change.org. “They are homeless, by definition they should be able to get out of Tanner’s bubble of privilege!”

Golden brushed off the criticism, saying he is simply trying to find a solution to a problem that has affected him and others he knows on campus.

The Austin Police Department, however, says that homeless people do not generally present a threat.

“In terms of personal safety, students should always be vigilant and aware of their surroundings, but fear of the homeless population, in general, would be misguided, in my opinion,” Kurtis Krause, Austin Police commander for the West Campus area, said in an email statement.

Krause confirmed that the Austin Police Department has increased patrols of West Campus in recent days. He also said APD takes several factors into account when planning its activities.

“As we focus our crime prevention efforts and resources in the West Campus area, it is always with a focus on criminal activity and quality of life issues, never a specific population,” said Krause. “As you know, there are bad elements in every group and in every population.”

The campus police department is acting in a similar fashion in their handling of the homeless.

“UTPD has not made any changes directly related to the homeless population around campus,” said Officer William Pieper. “Our initiatives are based on a person’s actions. If a person on campus violates any law or rule and UTPD is made aware of such violation, then the police respond and take appropriate law enforcement action.”

One homeless man who spends time on Guadalupe Street says he has noticed changes in how he is regarded in the wake of Weiser’s killing.

“I’m not getting as much money as I used to,” said David Hayes of the cash he solicits from passersby. “And I’ve got a few looks from students. More than usual.”

Hayes, 67, who has been homeless for 29 years, said he worries that the slaying and the press about it will hurt him and his community. Criner, Hayes noted, was not part of the regular homeless community.

“The article that came out in the [Austin American-Statesman] didn’t help — talking about how [Criner] was homeless when none of us knew him,” said Hayes. “It shines a bad light on the homeless.”

For Hayes, these days it’s just about getting by. “The problem, really, is we’re trying to survive,” he said. “That’s all we’re trying to do over here.”

But another homeless man, who goes by the name Thunder Struck, said the situation for him and his community hasn’t changed much in the past few days.

“Oh, the police don’t bother me,” said Thunder Struck, 51, who said he has been homeless for 26 years. “They know me and the rest of us. They’re just trying to do their job.”

Even Golden, the student, who said he has family members who are homeless, acknowledges that any response to his petition most likely will be a complex one.

“I want to take [the petition] to the city, and I want to do something about why there are so many homeless in the city,” said Golden. “If it’s drugs, we need to have rehab programs. If it’s [veterans] experiencing the aftereffects of war, we need to have better social funds for that. We need to make sure these people get what they need.”

Golden intends to submit the petition to the city before the end of April.