Last month, Meechaiel Criner was sentenced to forty years in prison for the 2016 murder of dance freshman Haruka Weiser. Her murder, the first on-campus killing since the 1966 tower shooting, sparked a passionate plea to improve campus safety. While these calls did make students safer, they were tinged with hatred — all part of a reactionary backlash against the homeless community of which Criner was a part.
Longhorns should absolutely strive for a campus in which students feel safe. Yet, our anger is misplaced. Meechaiel Criner is a murderer, and he was homeless. UT students often misconstrue these two unrelated facts as one and the same, perpetuating prejudice and touting ignorant stereotypes based in neither evidence nor self-interest. Weiser’s death is a tragedy. So is the way that many Longhorns view the homeless.
UTPD Chief David Carter says while his department monitors campus and surrounding areas for trespassing and threatening behavior, their approach towards the homeless is the same as towards any other group of people.
“You can’t use a blanket statement on a group of folks where there is no clear profile,” he said. “It’d be like calling out any other particular group and saying they are always this way.”
Statistically, homeless people are no more violent than any other class of people. Nationwide studies find that homeless people are significantly less likely to commit violent crimes than housed people. When they are arrested it is mostly for petty, victimless offenses such as loitering or ordinance violations — symptoms of mental illness and desperation, not malice. While homelessness is not a crime, many of the unavoidable consequences of being homeless are. Chief Carter refers to these as “quality of life” crimes.
The Austin Chronicle highlights an APD analysis that further disproves the stereotype of homeless people as criminal vagrants. It found that only 21 percent of crimes committed downtown between 2010–2012 involved homeless people — and 17 percent of this figure are crimes in which the homeless person was the victim. In fact, homeless people are more likely to be the victims of violent crime — not the perpetrators.
When one looks at the issue factually and not fearfully, it is clear that the disdain for homeless people around campus is based in the same vein as racism or sexism — both irrational aversions towards a group of people based on stereotypes and prejudice used to justify further disadvantaging them.
Students must learn to treat homeless people with more compassion than caution. The UT non-profit organization SafeHorns understands this, as they advocate for removing the homeless from areas around campus yet are careful to not generalize all of them as dangerous.
“It’s not about criminalizing the homeless. We’re talking about criminal behavior,” says Safehorns founder Joell Sullivan-McNew. “We’re empathetic, but we want accountability for people who are behaving in criminal ways that impact any person.”
At the end of the day, students have the power to ensure their safety by helping the homeless in West Campus to find better arrangements. In this way, close engagement with the homeless isn’t at odds with student safety — it is necessary for it.
"We become complacent… and then people don’t get help,” Sullivan-McNew said. “We have to have conversations to understand each other better and be doers in our community … we have to get involved.”
Students can and should be cautious in West Campus without resorting to homeless hysteria. We are right to demand better campus safety in the aftermath of a tragedy, but we cannot let our outrage outweigh our outlook.
Chandler is a journalism and government major from Houston. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanChandler98.