Moving Black Bodies: Austin’s Black History in Real-Time

Place of living of migrants or homeless people with group of tents in rural environment
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As we settle into the beginning of March, we may be inclined to place Black History on a shelf until next February. However, for some of us, this is not an option.

During the month of Black History, we, as a community, often focus on the triumphs and tragedies of the past. We point at these instances of the Black experience throughout our history as both templates for our future and atrocities by which we learn to never repeat. However, for those of us who live in Black bodies, these experiences—both high and low—are never truly or solely in the past. They—the experiences, the people—are weaved into our consciousness and our lived experience. And, with the greatest of sorrow, the tragedies of our history reappear under different times by different people whose goal is still the same: to break apart Black communities, move Black bodies, and dehumanize Black spirits for the comfort of those with more privilege.

Right now, in one of Austin’s historically Blackest neighborhoods, St. John’s, history is playing out as we speak. But it is more complicated than you might think.

History has many possible narratives, depending on your viewpoint. In the St. John’s neighborhood, let’s consider at least two:

Narrative #1

St. John’s neighborhood is bordered by 183 and 290 to the north and south, and Middle Fiskville/Twin Crest to the west and Cameron Road to the east. The community in the St. John’s neighborhood, despite being subject to gentrification and displacement, is still one of Austin’s most predominantly Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods, with Black portion of the population being disproportionately high, and the Hispanic share being over 80%. Its neighborhood association has been working diligently for over a decade to “reclaim the neighborhood park” from years of neglect by the city. Recently they were successful in getting the neglected and hazardous empty pool filled in, and the park revitalized for the neighborhood children. Recently, the association narrowed its focus on an opportunity for their unhoused neighbors who they believed would be served by HEAL, a city program that provides housing placement to the unhoused community. It all seemed like a win/win. (This is not, in fact, the case. HEAL will not be coming, but more on that later. The point is that the association believed they were.)

Narrative #2

The encampment that lives adjacent to the park is one of Austin’s most predominantly Black encampments. Having no legal place to exist, our unhoused neighbors settled there within the last 3 years, and have worked hard to maintain peace and cleanliness amongst themselves. Considering themselves stewards of the land, these unhoused neighbors recently performed a massive camp clean-up, and appealed to Austin Resource Recovery (who does not serve the area), to pick up the more than 20 large bags of trash collected by the campers. They’ve also mowed and done their best to address other matters that might impact their housed neighbors. During the most recent winter storms, their tents were destroyed, and to survive they built a make-shift warming area around the park pavilion, which was soon after torn down by a reportedly off-duty police officer. The camp residents have begun to stabilize by going and getting their governmental documents, holding town halls to ensure they are being good neighbors, and communicating with local non-profits with the hope of eventually improving their quality of life and transitioning back into the workforce. Luke Curry, a 4th generation Austinite, the encampment’s lead neighbor is resilient but understandably disturbed by the future displacement of the community he is a part of. 

This park is important to us. This park is our history. The people who live here have lived here for generations. St. John’s is our home. And just as our physical homes were taken through gentrification, our community is now also being threatened with displacement. We take care of this land. We appreciate this land. We are this neighborhood. We are the ones that were born on this Austin soil. To begin pushing us out during Black History month is just another slap in the face. 

Luke Curry, a 4th generation Austinite and Lead St. John’s camp neighbor

The Sweeping Impact 

The “pushing out” Mr. Curry articulates is a camp-wide sweep that was originally scheduled for late February during freezing conditions. With just a few days’ warning, notices were posted that the camp was scheduled for a “sweep,” on Thursday, February 17th. And to everyone’s dismay, it became clear that HEAL had not been prioritized. For those that have not experienced a sweep, it often includes the destruction and removal of belongings, whether or not campers are present to quickly collect vital belongings such as identification, medications, or documentation required for receiving services. Our unhoused neighbors report that this is an extremely traumatic experience. In fact, as recently as February 22, a sweep took place at Roy Guererro Park hours after the Roy G. campers discovered that a community member had died in her tent. As the body laid behind the veil of her tent, the sweep moved forward, crushing people’s belongings and eventually clearing what might otherwise have been a crime scene. People on the scene described it as nothing short of inhumane.

The HEAL initiative (again, not being offered in this case) combines a sweep with the offer of housing. But given the limitations of city resources and available housing, HEAL is prioritized for camps that are in the “most dangerous” locations, such as near an intersection. This prioritization exists to help prevent the squeaky-wheel phenomenon (often leading to white neighborhoods getting priority status and rarely leading to equitable outcomes.) The nuances used to categorize the “most dangerous” do little for encampments like St. John’s, where neighbors intentionally chose a location that was away from the road in an empty lot near a park. As a result, it appears that the St. John’s camp, next to the park, was not prioritized for HEAL, and these campers are therefore not receiving the very limited HEAL resources, despite their relative vulnerability. So, here we have a camp that has intentionally placed themselves in a less intrusive location, created and maintained space to be respectful of themselves and their neighbors to the best of their abilities, and, yet, are still being prioritized to be displaced without housing or resources. 

This reality is unfair but it remains. It pushes organizers to hypothesize on the modifications to the surrounding systems in order to ensure equitable distribution of resources to the most historically and continuously disenfranchised population — perhaps by re-evaluating the HEAL priority and to add a social vulnerability factor. But of course, that would take months, and right now, Luke and his community are in jeopardy.

So, as the situation stands, right on the heels of Black History Month, we are scheduled to displace and move Black bodies away from their home and take away or destroy most of their belongings for the comfort of others. An act of oppression all too well known by our society as our history though it is quite literally our present. 

The forced movement of bodies, especially Black bodies, is nothing new. But in the case of St. Johns, we do have a small chance to do the right thing.

A Call for Compassionate Action

Right now, organizers are meeting with city staff and officials to negotiate a better outcome for St. John’s. The sweep has been temporarily delayed while planning takes place to create a just transition for these unhoused neighbors. Participating in these planning sessions are representatives from Austin Area Urban League, Community Resilience Trust, Little Petal Alliance, the Homeless Strategy Office, and the Office of Councilmember Chito Vela. Meetings have also been held with St. John’s Neighborhood Association.

Once we realized the camp getting cleared wasn’t on the HEAL list, we kicked it into overdrive. My staff visited the camp themselves and worked through that weekend just trying to find homes for the residents.”

Council Member Vela, Austin City Council

But it’s nowhere near simple. The city is required to move forward or risk legal action from the state that could put future social programs in jeopardy. 

Little Petal Alliance, in partnership with camp leader Luke, have been able to negotiate placement for some of the neighbors at a case-management housing solution. They have worked tirelessly to complete the necessary paperwork and support collecting any documentation necessary. They are still trying to find placement for the rest that don’t qualify.

The solution will not come without a price tag, however. Just to get the campers effectively started at the private housing placement and other alternatives will cost $100,000. That’s why Austin Area Urban League is challenging all of Austin’s advocacy groups and local nonprofits to contribute to the cause:

The primary challenge is to unify around developing and implementing multiple  solutions for housing insecurity, homelessness, and unhoused-status-centered on the most vulnerable of those impacted being supported and prioritized while partnering with all our brothers  and sisters with this lived experience (current or past) to permanently solve this. The secondary challenge is, Empowering individuals for an improved Quality of Life in an achievable approach and sustainable COC and HMIS system that considers all necessary stakeholders to serve and be served. 

Quincy Dunlap, AAUL

To be clear, our unhoused neighbors have no legitimate place to reside. No place is defined as housing to rest their heads, or take shelter. Their existence—due to various circumstances, including systematic and institutionalized exclusion from the quality of life and the impact of local and Texas state policy,  that we as a community voted on—is now making their survival illegal. And, to reiterate, the trauma of displacement layered on top of the retraumatizations of criminalization of their existence, encampment destruction and displacement occurring this in the middle of winter (or at any time), is happening here—in an often nationally marketed liberal and progressive blue city in a red state. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this occurring during Black History Month of 2022.  

This is no one person, entity, or agency’s fault or burden, but it is everyone’s responsibility regardless of whether we choose to accept this fact. We all have had, have, and will have a part to play in living history. 

This will either result in a just transition for a vulnerable community and the beautification of a neighborhood park, or the inhumane treatment of one of our most vulnerable Black communities. What do we do about that? How might we ensure no one falls through the cracks and everyone is empowered in the process? 

The answer, at least for this encampment in this moment is clear: Share & Donate to fund housing placement for the community here. 100% of funds donated to this project will go toward supporting folks from the St. John’s encampment in their needs in securing housing and safe haven, with financial transparency through a community report to all contributors following this initiative. 

                                                          

Right now, in one of Austin’s historically Blackest and Brownest neighborhoods, history is playing out as we speak. The outcome is yet to be determined — still yet within our societal grasp to co-create. We must in turn ask ourselves what history will speak of us.  

St. John, whom the neighborhood was named for, was the patron saint of friendship. On the subject of our treatment of the poor, he writes:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

John 18:22

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