Right when you thought we had escaped the winter that canceled the most days of class in recent memory, Austin is once again pummeled by bizarre weather changes. Some may be upset that the annual Zilker Kite Festival was postponed, while others are excited by the possibility of another snow day. But on a cold night like Sunday night, whose concerns are more serious: yours in your warm apartment or those of a homeless person’s stuck out in the cold?
You’re walking down the Drag at sundown, and a pack of disheveled people loiter around 22nd Street — the direct route to and from school for many of us. They peer at you with the sullen looks of people weathered by life’s hardest lessons. You watch them from afar as you approach, but the closer you get, the more you avert your gaze. Partially intrigued, partially wary, you look back at them.
Let’s say one of the suspected homeless is dazed from enduring a summer-long heat stroke, or still shivering from this year’s anomalous record-low freezes. The delirium and indignation of his condition finally gets the best of him. Unprovoked, he releases whatever aggression he has by ranting aimlessly, yelling violent or obscene things. Perhaps to get some kick out of his destitution, he spooks a student or two.
Absurd policies of subjugation are currently in place to handle the mess, such as a 30-minute loitering rule requiring such individuals to move locations in the allotted time — be it a few mere inches in physical space. As APD Lt. Tyson McGowan told Ally Triolo, an opinion columnist for this paper who wrote a piece critical of the perceived aggressiveness of the local homeless community, officers “don’t have time” to enforce such ineffective policies. Perhaps it’s time we take the solution into our own hands.
Walk by and make eye contact. Say hello. Shake their hands and tell them, “Have a good day,” like you would anyone else. After a few days of cordial gestures, have a conversation. You will be thrown back, not by them, but by the shock of realizing how normal — better yet, human — they are. Before you know it, you’re having lunch together and they introduce you to their friends and they inquire about the things you’re learning in school, absolutely absorbed. Sounds like a customary college encounter, right?
This is not a utopian ideal, and if it is, how sad. Relationships like this are possible and, in fact, exist today. Jeff, a friend of mine who spends most of his time in the area, his face stained red from enduring hours of unrelenting sunrays, his scalp visible from patches of missing hair, is one example. A common interest sparked the conversation: We both like bikes. He’s a proud owner of the sweetest ride I’ve ever seen — it’s shaped like a motorcycle! I bring him pecan pie, and every time we see each other he says, “Happy Birthday.” My girlfriend brings him a sandwich and sunblock. The appreciation spills out of his eyes.
It’s so simple, yet the entire social dynamic changes — you will make an impression on your fellow students passing by, you will open the indigent individual up to the possibility that these young adults aren’t as naive and cold as previously conceived and you will show yourself that you had the capacity to act out of love in a way that felt right all along. Changing each other’s attitudes is what will have the everlasting positive effect.
But, alas, we are scared. There are many different types of homeless people, just as there are many types of people — and just because one has done us wrong does not mean we should not give others a chance.
It’s time we changed our mind-set that the homeless are the problem, that our streets should be cleansed of them. Especially on days of near freezing temperatures, it would serve us well to show kindness to the homeless as the winter weather hurts them much more than it affects us. It’s safe to say that our generation hasn’t seen such a blatant generalization of a demographic since the civil rights era. With just the slightest bit of compassion, we can collectively shift the paradigm and make our community a safer, happier and, in terms of this radical social mission here in Austin, a weirder place.
Dominguez is a biology junior from San Antonio.