While the lives of the homeless mirror in many ways those of citizens with more stable systems of shelter—after all, they have to wake up, eat, practice varying forms of personal hygiene, etc.—these daily functions, which many take for granted, become funhouse-warped and vastly more complicated for those who live on the streets. Sleeping at night involves the finding of shelter, either through some form of organized infrastructure, or by one’s day-to-day resourcefulness. Eating at regular intervals can mean resorting to the consumption of scraps that many urbanites might shy away from feeding their family dogs. And, as we discovered in last month’s column, sex, while still complicated in the myriad of ways human beings find to contrive most anything that requires the complicity of more than a solitary person, takes on entirely new aspects of complexity when it involves people who call the streets their home. Although the homeless overcome seemingly simple daily obstacles in drastically variegated and often surprisingly creative ways, it generally serves only as a discordant counterpoint which highlights the exponential danger of the potential pitfalls of street-life.
One of the most pressing crises currently facing the homeless is the spread of blood-borne pathogens through the practice of unprotected sexual intercourse and the sharing of needles and other tools necessary for the injection of intravenous drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines. During my research into how Austin’s two major shelters for the homeless deal with the sexual proclivities of their clientele base, I discovered some major gaps which both the city and its legally-sanctioned activists fail to address.
Nestled between Red River bars best known for raucous 1980’s-themed dance nights (every night) and shit-hole parking lots where yuppies and frat-types enjoy paying between seven and ten dollars for the privilege of parking in the remnants of each day’s sun-baked bird excrement, lies the ARCH: the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. The ARCH, as the words which make up its acronym strive to denote, aims to be one of Central Texas’ most important resources for the homeless population in the liberally self-styled, bloody-heart capitol of our unabashedly anti-welfare, machine-politic dominated state. ARCH’s intentions and results being, of course, two entirely separate states themselves.
“Are there many direct instances of sexual assault out here?” I asked security officer Jimenez back when I was first trying to get a clearer understanding of how varying facets of sexuality worked amongst our homeless population.
Jimenez shrugged, thumbs looped on either side of his belt buckle as he wrenched his head from side to side on a thick-set neck and eyed his employers’ clientele.
“Our job,” he said, “is mostly to just make sure things stay orderly. It’s not too bad, usually.”
“So rape isn’t a problem?” I asked, trying to make eye contact behind Jimenez’s impenetrably-tinted glasses.
“Like I said,” he shrugged again, “we mainly focus on the facilities, and it’s all-male in there. There’s been some instances where someone has come up and filed complaints about so-and-so attacking them in the streets. I try to get a general description of the person, in case they try to come here after, but then I just try and make sure that they get in contact with the police to file reports, and the police take it from there.”
When I asked him about whether he’d witnessed any instances of consensual sex, Jimenez said that he’d heard of people ‘humping’ (my term for intercourse, not his), “in alleys and parking garages, but [the homeless] are relatively secretive about their sex lives.” When pressed about the issue, Jimenez suggested that I might try my luck up the block.
Talking to one of the security officers at the Salvation Army about the personal lives and habits of the SA’s homeless clients proved about as fruitful as it had at the ARCH, though the officer did enlighten me on how the male and female separated dorms work.
When asked whether there was ever any mixed-gender cohabitation, or sexual relations that took place inside, he shook his head.
“The women don’t want the men in their dorms. If one of them even tried to get in, they’d tear his ass apart… Out here, though,” he pointed down the alley, “we got all types of things: guy on guy, girl on girl, guy on girl… everything.”
While the actions and approaches to helping the homeless, both from the ARCH and the Salvation Army (You’re homeless? Let us help. We’ll shelter you temporarily then get you integrated back into society), at first seemed beneficial in almost every light, something about the two organizations’ approaches to the alleviation of suffering bugged me in a way I wouldn’t be able to articulate until I had a discussion with a middle-aged prostitute named Diana several days later.
I met Diana outside of Club 1808, on the corner of 12^th^ St and Chicon—what was once, even quite recently, notorious as the most dangerous intersection in the pre-hipsterfied East Side of the city, and to this day remains one of the biggest drug-corners in an otherwise exceptionally calm metropolitan area.
The story of Diana’s adult life, as she made it clear, was one that began on the streets, working as a prostitute for a fairly brutal pimp. She was, as she explained, homeless at the time she began hooking, as well as a drug addict, and prostitution truly seemed like the only way to meet her needs of basic sustenance while maintaining an expensive drug-life. Her wake-up call, as it were, came quite literally one morning, as she had been passed-out in the gutter, and awoke to a street-cleaner vehicle running over her as though she were less than human refuse. Although she claimed to be off drugs, and living in a house she could afford on her own, at the time I talked to her, neither of these factors added up to her being able to quit a life of having sex with strangers as her primary source of income.
Diana, as it was becoming clear, was just one face that exemplified but a fraction of the problems that come from the City of Austin not taking a comprehensive look at the complexities attached to homelessness; nearly all of them a sub-problem of the question: what do we do about the people who, for whatever reason, can’t, or won’t be integrated back into mainstream society?
From an early age it became clear to Diana, a then-drug addict, that a transitional period of life in a shelter was not a viable way to sustain her habit. Her solution of engaging in prostitution, since it had been deemed illegal by the State of Texas, was consequently not accounted or planned for in any official capacity. In a state whose politics are dominated by supposed “Christian morality,” any sort of fact and result based, pragmatic approach is ignored, lest a politician be liable to criticism for “supporting” the use of drugs, or sex for money.
It’s no secret that intravenous drug use and unprotected sex are directly associated with the spread of blood-communicable diseases, including the two big names of fear in needle crowds: Hepatitis C, and HIV. And, likewise, it shouldn’t be secret or taboo to speak about how these drugs are being cooked in spoons, filtered through cigarette butts, pulled into syringes, and slowly, methodically released into the instantly relieved veins of addicts throughout the capitol of Texas, particularly in low-income, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Thanks to the machine-politics and zealous-religiosity that rape our state’s political structure, it is taboo. For this reason, programs which might help to stop the spread of diseases which the general public supposedly detests (last time I checked, HIV was still unpopular as hell, right?)—programs such as, oh say condom distribution, or needle exchanges, are designated illegal. Our city’s homeless are especially susceptible to these diseases and their spread. There isn’t any sort of city-sanctioned, on-the-streets, judgment and proscription-free program in place—something which both educates on the dangerous nature of sex and drug-communicable diseases, as well as provides the sanitary equipment required to engage responsibly in these activities for those who just cannot bring themselves to quit. Because of this, I fear that the idea that quality of life and health can encompass all levels of society, including the homeless and indigent, an idea which institutions like the ARCH and the Salvation Army are supposedly trying to encourage, might be just as idiotic and morally bankrupt as the idea that kids aren’t going to fuck at age twelve as long as you tell them that it’s so very bad, oh so bad, you-totally-shouldn’t-do-it-because-you’ll-go-to-Hell bad.