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Dec 11, 19

Stop the Sweeps Austin Pushes Back Against Displacement & Camping Ban

Report from Stop the Sweeps Austin about ongoing activity to resist attacks on the homeless and tent encampments.

Since November, Stop the Sweeps Austin has been fighting the on going displacement of homeless people by City and State forces. A lot has happened and it has been easy to get lost in the details of who is responsible for which sweeps and how this all came to be. For the long version, see our interview on the This Is America podcast.

The short version: On November 4th the city and State began enacting different camping bans enacted by different logics. The city had just passed a revised camping ban, putting some restriction on camping in the city in general while banning camping, sitting, and lying down altogether in the 7 square blocks around the downtown homeless shelter (the ARCH), which overlaps with the central business district and party zones. The Austin Police Department had already planned the eviction of a camp directly across from the shelter, in coordination with a long list of service providers in the area.

On the 4th, this action by the city corresponded with the beginning of sweeps of camps under the overpasses of the highways around town, demanded by the Governor’s office and orchestrated by the Department of Transportation (TXDOT), state cops (DPS), and a handful of private contractors who would actually do the labor of throwing people’s belongings away (Workquest, EPSI, Relief Enterprise, Pacesetters). Some of us were present when we expected this to begin, but the state shifted its schedule and began later in the day on the other side of town.

Some of us had been visiting the ARCH camp for the previous weeks or otherwise knew people that resided there or near there. On the day of, we organized together and defended a little more than half of the camp from APD and the city trash service. This would not last, cops and trash workers arrived the next night at 4:08 AM and took the rest. Another tent was set up that day and our friend was arrested. The police continue to buzz around the block harassing people waiting for services or community. Another friend was brutally arrested for filming these interactions.

Since the 4th, we have maintained our contact with friends at the ARCH and have been organizing to be present at the persistent State run sweeps of the underpasses. We have both tried to support the residents as they relocate temporarily, and to delay and disrupt the activity of the cops, supervisors and workers. We also film extensively, putting pressure on the work crew in the moment and gathering footage to use later.

There have been some successes and some disheartening failures. After we had been able to stay legally in the campsites to film slowing a sweep for hours, the state decided to enforce a State Work Zone law which allowed them to trespass us from the area. We were pushed to the sidelines without the forces to resist this order. However as the State work crew continued through town, the terrain changed and we were able to use time and persistence to our advantage. Supervisors were visibly demoralized, at least one gave a threat of bodily harm. They spent longer and longer on the phone with their supervisors. Moral sank.

This week, we came with more supporters and an understanding of our power. They did not attempt to issue or enforce the Work Zone order until the very end, though there were more DPS present that before. More physical threats were issued by the work crew, though it was clear to even them they could do nothing of the sort.

When the crews got downtown, the residents scramble to relocate began, but as some tents went down, one went up – without plans to voluntarily comply. One resident excitedly began to livestream cheering them on! In the end, the arrest was made and we are currently anticipating our friend’s release. Photos and a report from this altercation began to go viral on Facebook, initiated by an opposition Facebook group, ironically all this caught the attention of the algorithm! As Zuckerberg says: It is good to be attacked by the enemy.

This is all in the face of a growing mood of austerity, with the city and state governments cutting services for housing and mental illness for many years. Services are much more likely to be provided by NGO’s, many of whom receive some state money and have to find the rest elsewhere. Even the city is looking to places like the Bloomberg Foundation for money, spending most of a recent grant studying data collection on homeless individuals to be stored in perpetuity on the blockchain. This money spent studying surveillance technologies, and paying the professionals that worked on it goes hand in hand with the mentality of the sweeps, that homelessness is not to be ended and that people suffering it need to be controlled.

The Governor in an attempt to shield himself from this critique, almost a month ago announced a temporary housing solution for people displaced from the underpasses, something both TXDOT and the haters online will not let people forget. He unlocked an abandoned TXDOT facility on the far edge of town, housing people in truck shelters on a 5 acre brownfield lot.

People are sleeping two or three to a shelter and have found their way out there despite there being extremely limited (at first just one way) bus service and no sidewalks along the access road to the highway in lies next to. There are no showers, laundry, medical care or social workers. In some cases the roofs over the shelters are incomplete and people have had to make do during the winter rains. There is, however, plenty of barbed wire and State cops. In response to being told by a resident that the place was a concentration camp, the lone operative from Texas Emergency Management, operated by the Forest Service of Texas A&M told him, “You’re free to leave!” Some freedom.

We are currently seeking support from all over to build a reserve of money for legal fees and supplies:

Phone Zap:

We are also asking people to call the contractors and demand they drop the contract! Stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter for dates of scheduled phone zaps, but feel free to give them a call anytime!

They are currently:

EPSI: (512) 614-6116
WorkQuest: 512-451-8145 ask for Abby Monk, the regional marketing manager, or Roxy Van Loo, the state sales manager.

Suggested Script: “Hello, I am calling today to demand that EPSI/Workquest ceases its facilitation of homeless sweeps in Austin. It is hypocritical to claim to work for the benefit of people with disabilities while ruining the lives of one of the most vulnerable populations of people with disabilities. We ask that you stop providing the labor force to enable these inhumane raids. Homeless people have a right to exist and a right to dignity.”

You can block your number by dialing *67 before dialing the number.

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Network resisting anti-houseless sweeps, gentrification, and police brutality.

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