After attending a meeting with the Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon, UT Student Government tweeted about the possible implementation of public restrooms in the West Campus area as it relates to the homeless community, making statements some felt contradicted the organization’s earlier sentiments about Austin’s homeless population.
On January 13, Austin’s Health and Human Services Committee voted in favor of bringing a resolution to City Council that would introduce 24-hour public restrooms in District 9 — an area that encompasses downtown Austin and includes West Campus.
During the meeting with the Committee and afterward, Student Government posted a string of tweets arguing that the placement of public bathrooms would enable and increase criminal activities.
We do not condone implementation of public restrooms in West Campus. Doing so, we believe, would institutionalize transient presence.— UT Student Gov't (@UT_SG) May 24, 2016
Safety is a top priority for Longhorns. Transients engage in criminal activities that put the students/homeless in WC at a greater risk.— UT Student Gov't (@UT_SG) May 24, 2016
Students on campus immediately responded to the tweets, with many Twitter users expressing concerns that Student Government members felt negatively toward the homeless community.
“Honestly, I think it was 100 percent inappropriate for them to tweet that,” said John Falke, former SG University-wide representative and financial affairs chair and business and supply chain management senior. “It’s a ridiculous statement for them to say transients engage in criminal activity. I mean, we have students who are homeless. How do you think they feel seeing [Student Government members] use that rhetoric?”
UT Student Government has been meeting with Austin City Council members to address the issue of homelessness since the death of dance freshman Haruka Weiser in early April. Weiser was reported missing on April 4 after failing to return home from a dance rehearsal the previous evening. On April 5, her body was found in Waller Creek. Austin Police Department later charged 17-year-old Meechaiel Criner, a homeless youth, with first-degree murder.
As details of Weiser’s death became public, a group of concerned UT parents formed the group SafeHorns, a private Facebook group discussing safety concerns for students on campus. The organization approached student body president Kevin Helgren in an effort to get SG involved in addressing campus safety concerns, such as preventing the implementation of public restrooms in West Campus. SafeHorns is one of many organizations that have coordinated with Student Government to achieve what Helgren calls a “multidimensional approach” to addressing public safety concerns in the wake of Weiser’s death.
Neuroscience and business senior Helgren said there is a difference between criminal transients and the homeless population.
“Criminal transients are, more often than not, individuals who are not permanently in Austin, and are just moving from point A to point B — individuals who consume K2 and incentivize bizarre and criminal populations,” Helgren said. “Criminal transients and the homeless are two different populations. The efforts of City Council, SG, APD and others are not targeting socioeconomic status, but instead criminal behaviors.”
Shortly after their original tweets, Student Government released a statement explaining the meaning behind the message on social media.
“Our previous remarks were not meant to insult, offend or dehumanize any one party, as Student Government serves to unite the student body, not divide it,” the statement said. “Student safety is a top priority. There is a difference between the long-standing homeless individuals who APD officers know by name, and the criminal transients who serve as a threat to student safety.”
Currently, the resolution is only in a “trial phase,” with public restrooms being temporarily implemented in the downtown area only. At the moment, City Council has no intention to place restrooms in West Campus and only included the area in the resolution because they are required to address it as part of District 9. Student Government members, however, are still meeting frequently with City Council to make sure the students’ safety interests are represented, said Colton Becker, communication director for Student Government and nursing junior.
“Safety is most important to students, parents, administration — to everyone on campus,” Becker said. “As Student Government, we are not a separate entity from students, and are acting in our own interests as students as well. We can either take no action … allowing anger and misunderstanding to accumulate, or we can make an effort to distinguish between [criminal transients and homeless people] … so that discussion can turn into action that addresses this issue.”
The UT community reacted:
@UT_SG also "law enforcement is based on behavior, not appearance or socioeconomic status" isn't always true - signed a black person— dr. kimberly reese (@christleandgold) May 24, 2016
whose lawyer dad whispered into an SG rep's ear and told them to call people who are homeless "transients"— Justin (@jusatk) May 25, 2016