AUSTIN (KXAN) — After the Texas Department of Public Safety announced Friday it “is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol this week and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events to conduct criminal acts,” Rhie Azzam Morris immediately began to worry about how those threats could impact people experiencing homelessness in downtown Austin.
Azzam Morris previously experienced homelessness in Austin and now works in Austin’s homeless response system.
“I just started thinking how vulnerable that population is — I mean I know it, I lived it — and thinking, who is doing anything about this?” she told KXAN.
“We’re talking about the most vulnerable population in our community, they’re our neighbors, and like, do they know this is coming? They don’t always know,” Azzam Morris said.
She added that part of her concern stemmed from the fact that participants in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 included self-described white supremacists and those who wore symbols associated with white nationalism.
She pointed to ECHO’s data from the Point in Time Count last year which indicate that Black Austinites continue to make up a disproportionately large number of the area’s homeless population. ECHOs data shows that African Americans represent more than 1 in 3 people counted in 2019 but represent less than 1 in 10 individuals in the total population of Austin-Travis County.
Azzam Morris and a friend got together and began fundraising for bus passes to bring to people experiencing homelessness in downtown Austin near the Texas Capitol. They created a group over the weekend called Safety for All ATX.
So far, between GoFundMe and Venmo, the group has raised around $6,000 and the group plans to share proof of how all of those funds are used on its Facebook page. The idea is to alert people living there to the possibility of demonstrations in the coming days and giving them an option to go somewhere else if they choose to.
“The level of response for how small it’s been has been amazing,” Azzam Morris said.
“I love Austin, I’ve been here a long time, but oftentimes I feel like there is a lack of compassion and humanity for people experiencing homelessness,” she noted.
By Sunday, this new group had mapped out downtown Austin and handed out bus passes to individuals experiencing homelessness. Along with the bus passes, the volunteers passed out pieces of paper with information on how to contact Safety For All ATX and where to find other free resources in the area. The volunteers are also offering $75 Visa gift cards for people experiencing homelessness so they can stay in a motel for a few days if that helps them move to a different location in the short term.
A volunteer coordinator for this project, who asked to remain anonymous, said they had distributed 81 bus passes to people downtown over the past two days. The coordinator said a majority of people experiencing homelessness they spoke with were aware that people had been demonstrating at the Texas Capitol on Sunday and that more demonstrations may happen ahead of the inauguration.
The volunteer coordinator told KXAN their goal is to have reached every person experiencing homelessness in that area by Tuesday.
A man experiencing homelessness who identified himself as Kenneth spoke with KXAN outside the capitol grounds where he was resting. Kenneth said he has been trying to get into housing in Austin but is still on a waitlist. He noted he is nervous about the prospect of violent extremism at the Texas Capitol and would like help getting situated somewhere safer. Kenneth was able to get in touch with Safety for All ATX Tuesday and access some of the assistance they have available.
And what happens if no extremist violence happens outside the Texas Capitol this week?
“If that’s the case, awesome,” Azzam Morris said. “We’ll just go down there on the weekend and pass out everything we have left.”
Other preparations ahead of potential unrest
Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) tells KXAN it also approved the distribution of 70 31-day bus passes to its outreach partners to give out in downtown Austin, starting Saturday. ECHO provided these bus passes for outreach partners to distribute in anticipation of possible violence downtown.
At the nonpartisan nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness, Vice President of Programs and Policy Steve Berg tells KXAN he and his colleagues have been monitoring how any potential demonstrations leading up to the inauguration might impact people experiencing homelessness.
Berg, who is based in the Washington, D.C. area, said “both with the national capitol here in D.C. and around the country, we are encouraging people just to be watchful and do what they can to keep people safe.”
“Unfortunately, there are all kinds of reasons that being homeless is dangerous, and we try to help communities keep people safe to the extent possible,” Berg added.
“Frankly I’ve been particularly concerned about this for a long time,” he said of potential violence directed against people experiencing homelessness. “I think a lot of these groups, they prey on weakness, and they will view homeless people as weak, I am concerned. You see communities where, Austin is unfortunately one of them, where there is anger directed at homeless people for things that aren’t their fault.”
Front Steps, who operates Austin’s Resource for the Homeless in downtown Austin, said it isn’t doing anything in particular in preparation for potential unrest at the capitol because the ARCH is already a 24/7 operation with security.
Major Lewis R. Reckline, area commander for Salvation Army Austin, explained that Austin being in Stage 5 for COVID-19 restrictions already limits activities in the Salvation Army downtown shelter and the surrounding area.
“We have high security standards already in place and will protect our clients regardless of what might happen outside the building,” Reckline said.
While peaceful demonstrations happened outside the Texas Capitol Grounds on Saturday and Sunday, as of 5 p.m. Monday, KXAN had not seen any additional demonstrations. State troopers continue to stand guard against any potential threats on the lawn of the capitol.