Happy 25th birthday Homer!
In honor of Homer we are publishing a chapter from an oral history of the affordable housing movement in Austin that was prepared for TxLIHIS by Joshua Knobe back in 2000.
The Blackland Neighborhood and the Street People’s Advisory Committee
KATHERINE POOLE: I’ve been living in the Blackland neighborhood since about… well, I’d say the early ‘50s. Blackland is the only neighborhood that I know, so naturally I’m ready to fight for it.
One of our main troubles was that the University of Texas kept encroaching on our neighborhood. Every time they want to expand, they just go east. I don’t really know when they started. But I do know that while I’ve lived here in Blackland, it’s been about every 20 years. Their excuse, of course, is the land is cheap. And I guess that’s good business sense. But one thing they promised is that they would only buy property if it came on the market. They were gonna hold to that. But there have been a lot of old houses over here that are owned by people who have moved out of state. They wrote to those people asking them to sell. Well, being out of state, they had no idea that we were fighting, trying to save the neighborhood. They had a chance to get cash money for these houses, and they weren’t getting too much money in rent. And I think they were glad to unload those houses. But anyway the university broke its promise of waiting until they came on the market. And when they bought a house, they were putting the people out. Two or three days after they bought the house, they’d come to the renters and say, “You gotta go.”
. It’s really a sad, sad story. Most of those people who were in those units were very poor, paying around $250 month in rent. They had to move to houses paying $450 in rent, which was high at that time and much higher than they could afford to pay. And some of them had to leave town, go back home to their parents. And that’s what gave us the idea of trying to get enough homes over here to have our neighbors back in the neighborhood. That year, we decided: Enough is enough. You will not come east anymore.
BO MCCARVER: So we formed an association. We were gonna try to defend ourselves. And eventually what we came up with as one of our goals was: “Yeah, they may get some of this, but it would be the last area they would get.” And we began to work with Legal Aid, trying to find a way to legally keep them out. Well, we struck on a plan. The idea was: If you put HUD housing in this area — working as part of a federal project sponsored by the city— if you put residential housing in here and use it for low-income families for public purpose, then it’s really difficult for a state entity to take it over. There’s a rule, a presidential order, that says that if a state entity tries to condemn one of these HUD projects, the U.S. Department of Justice will defend the federal rights. In other words, if the university tried to come in and take those properties, the Department of Justice would be representing Blackland. Not bad.
So we got a $500,000 grant from the city through HUD, and then we contracted with John Henneberger and Karen Paup
JOHN HENNEBERGER: The university thought they could buy the land for cheap and just roll over the neighborhood. But it was becoming clear that the city was going to at least partially back the neighborhood, and we were going to compete with the university in buying property. We started building new houses strategically to stop the university from acquiring entire blocks of land — you go in the middle of a block and stick a house; you go on one corner of the block and stick a new house — and they couldn’t get a big enough chunk of land to do their institutional redevelopment. They had to take us on. And the city was giving us the money to buy the land and build the houses. So we were fighting them on an equal level.
KAREN PAUP: Then, in 1986, I was appointed to a homeless task force that met and met and met and met… It was awful! But in the end we came up with a set of recommendations. One of them that really got acted on was the notion that the city should have transitional housing, that there should be places where people could get things back together, where the rent was lower and they had some help with some things and they would make a transition into a stable housing situation that they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.
And so one of the members of the group who was a real activist for the homeless, Lori Renteria, had suggested that in the Blackland neighborhood there was all this housing that the university had bought up. It was all just boarded up. And Lori suggested that MHMR [the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation] should take it over and run it as transitional housing for the homeless. Of course, the neighborhood had the traditional kind of reaction — Not in my back yard! Part of it was to MHMR; they didn’t like the idea that another organization was gonna come in and run housing, and they weren’t sure about inviting homeless people into the community. And so they reacted against it and pretty much told us to forget the whole idea.
VEON MCREYNOLDS: I was working for the neighborhood back then, and there was this national campaign called ‘Take the Boards Off Day.’ The idea was that there were lots of vacant boarded up places that were publicly owned and we should make those places available to homeless people. Rather than sleeping outside, people could at least go inside and sleep. Anyway, the university owned these little cottages in Blackland. Really nice little single units. It was almost like a motel. So we decided to take over those units.
That’s when the neighborhood first started working with those homeless people from the Street People’s Advisory Committee (SPAC).
KAREN PAUP: Actually, we should go back to the origins of SPAC. Lori had been working with a group of people and kinda got them to where they were a group that had a name: the Street People’s Advisory Committee.
LORI RENTERIA: Well, it all began when Karen Paup and John Henneberger and that whole group of people put together something called the Affordable Housing Exploitation Express. It was a little tour for the National Conference of Mayors meeting in Austin and media about the deplorable housing conditions in the Austin neighborhoods.
The mayor hosted a big meeting, and at that meeting, there was the chairperson of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Her name was Louisa Stark. As soon as she came in, she was telling us: “These suits and ties have to go! Nothing’s gonna happen until you organize the homeless people themselves.” And then she gave us a warning. She said: “It’s not gonna be pretty. These people have never been given a voice, and once you help them organize, they are gonna rant, rave, do the weirdest things. It’s gonna wreck your reputation. And you’re gonna end up in a love-hate relationship with all of your elected officials. But that’s the only way you’re ever gonna get anything going on in Austin, Texas.”
When we left that meeting, we all committed that we would do just what Louisa said. One of us would take off the suit and get down there at the shelters and in the streets and try to organize the homeless people. Well, I was the one who got selected for the job. And that was how SPAC got started. I went out and talked with some homeless people. I said: “We’ve been trying to do our best, but we can’t get anywhere with the city council because they don’t know you. You guys need to speak for yourself, and we’re willing to help you get organized into your own groups if you’ll come to some meetings.”
So these homeless people met and met, until they came up with a list of demands. And I said, “Well, a list of demands is a great thing, but if there are not consequences to demands, then they’re just a list on a piece of paper. You’ve gotta come up with a strategy.” And they said: “Ok. We’ll have a big barbecue, and we’ll get hundreds of people to come, and we’ll present our list of demands, and we’ll let everybody sign off.” So I said, “Well, that’s a great plan, but how the hell are we gonna get money to feed 200 people?” They told me not to worry; they would go dumpster diving and get all the scraps that the restaurants were throwing out at the end of the day. They knew these primo dumpsters, they said, where they could get all sorts of canned goods. Well, I said: “I’m really not keen on this idea of dumpster diving. We need a better plan.”
And then one of the guys said: “You know all those black swans on town lake. Let’s just call the barbecue the ‘First Annual Swanathon.’ And we’ll tell the restaurants that if they don’t give us food, we’re gonna be forced to go kill those swans and barbecue them.” And I said, “I think you might be able to raise some food donations with that strategy.”
So we got the food together, and we held the First Annual Swanathon under the I-35 bridge. I would say about 200 people came to the barbecue. And then they formed a big circle, and somebody stood up on a chair to lead the meeting. It took about 2 hours. They really hashed it out and wordsmithed it. I mean, you couldn’t tell these homeless people from a bunch of people in suits. I was very impressed with their knowledge and their capabilities. But we got stuck on the consequences. They were saying: “Well, for this item, this will be the consequence, and for this strategy, we’ll do this thing…” And then this older guy — a disabled older man — stood up. And he said: “People, you’re getting way too complicated here, This is a great list of demands, but you’ve gotta have just one really scary consequence for all these demands. Something that would just shut this city down.” And that’s when I started thinking: “Oh my god, here it comes. What Louisa was warning me about. They’re gonna do something really fucking crazy.”
So the other guy, the one who had come up with the idea of the Swanathon, he said: “Hey, let’s kidnap one of those swans and threaten to cook and eat it.” And I said: “Look guys, great strategy. But those swans are city property, and if we kidnap one and harm a feather on its back, that is theft of city property. I think we need to take up a collection and go buy our own swan.” So the old guy who first suggested that we have just one consequence, he said: “That’s a great idea, lady. I like that one. Here’s my hat. Everybody, put in what you can!” So they passed the hat, and they came up with — I don’t know — $16.87, I think. And then they all piled into the back of my pickup, and we drove out to the farm and feed store. They walk in, all proud as shit with that 16 dollars. And they go: “How much are the swans?” And the guy in the store says: “300 bucks” — “Whoa! We only have 16 dollars and 87 cents. Show us the other birds you have.” So they went into the little egg-hatching place with all the little chicks and stuff. And they looked at all the different kinds of little chickens and mid-sized birds they have there. And then one guy said: “Hey! Let’s get a goose — the goose that’s gonna lay the golden egg.” So that’s how they ended up with Homer the Goose.
KAREN PAUP: Well, the city went round and round with the list of demands. They didn’t want to do this, and they couldn’t figure out how to do that. And the homeless people kept carrying this goose around. They carried him down to council meetings and everywhere they went. In the end, the homeless people found some graceful way of backing off of killing the goose. They kept it as sort of mascot.
And then we got an invitation from the Lawyer’s Guild, which is a group of progressive attorneys. They wanted to do something. So they got together, sat down with Street People’s Advisory Committee, and they came up with an idea. One of the leaders of the group had lived on a boat — a real nice one, a yacht — until he got arrested on parking tickets or something, and he was stuck in jail. And then he lost his boat. Since he couldn’t make any payments, the boat was confiscated, and he was left homeless. And now he was saying: “I wish I could have a boat; I wish I could just go up to Town Lake and have a boat.” So they got into this idea that they could put a boat out on Town Lake. The attorneys went and looked through all of the rules, and they figured out how to make it as legal as possible. They couldn’t get it licensed as a regular boat, but they did certain other things that sorta made it comply. And then they just said it was a statement of free speech.
So we got some Styrofoam panels, and we went and got my chain saw. And we all go back into John’s backyard and start cutting those Styrofoam pieces into a boat. It was the S.S. Homer. So James Williams (a leader of the Street People’s Advisory Council) and Homer the Goose went to live on the S.S. Homer. And then a couple other homeless guys built boats. One of them built the S.S. American Dream — we put that out there — and I think for a time there was a third one. They anchored right across from the Hyatt Hotel so that people could see them. And they got a ton of attention, just a ton of attention. People would come down to talk with them; CNN came to interview them; and they did Good Morning America. They did a live remote from the S.S. Homer: these street guys with the goose standing there waving and shouting: “Good Morning America!”
JOHN HENNEBERGER: So it’s ‘Take the Boards Off Day.’ The homeless people and the neighbors march from one corner of the neighborhood to the other, with Homer leading the march. The university owned this old tourist court, and it was all boarded it up. So they break in. By this time, one of the residents in the neighborhood —Veon McReynolds, who is now the TxLIHIS board vice-president — is a graduate student at the university. He’s gotten to know someone in the University of Texas administration named Ed Sharp. And he’s told Ed what’s going to happen. And Ed’s like: “Well. OK. They’re just gonna be there for a couple of days.”
It was alright until someone else in the administration read the newspaper early in the morning. They called in SWAT team; they called in 30 people in SWAT outfits to surround this little parade and Homer and the three homeless men who camped out there for the night and carted them off to jail and put Homer in jail over at the SPCA. So Homer went to jail on civil disobedience on behalf of the homeless. You’ve got to picture the SWAT team chasing the goose, grabbing it and throwing it in the back of the police car, knowing that if they beat the homeless people, the Humane Society is not going to complain, but if they hurt that goose, this town goes over the edge: rioting in the street, burning, arson, pillaging, mayhem to no end…
VEON MCREYNOLDS: At that point, it’s a presidential election year so we decided: Well, what we need to do is go to the Democratic National Convention and try to get housing issues into the forefront of the convention. Homer had been getting a bunch of press. So we met and said: “Ok, we’re going to Atlanta.” We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have any money… were just, like, “Ok, let’s go!” So now the thing was: How are we gonna get the goose there and drive all this way? Eventually, the Democratic National Committee agreed to buy the goose a plane ticket, but they wouldn’t pay the airfare for the homeless guys. So the damn goose gets to fly to Atlanta, while we drive real fast and try to arrive in time meet it at the airport.
Anyway, we drove to Atlanta and picked up the goose. Then we went down to the convention, and by having the goose walking around the convention, somehow we managed to press in, and somebody actually got in and talked with CNN and gave a interview. We definitely got national publicity by going. That was our purpose: to get publicity for the housing issue. So anyway we wind up sending the goose back on the plane, and then we drive back and continue the struggle.
KAREN PAUP: By then, the university had decided that they’d better get those houses out of there. If they get rid of those houses, there won’t be any more protests. So at 7 o’clock in the morning, they bring the bulldozers over to the Blackland neighborhood.
KATHERINE POOLE: One day I was walking, and I saw these big trucks. I didn’t know what they were, but I asked the guy who was walking with me, “What are those things?” And he said: “Those are bulldozers.” I said: “Uh-Oh.” And I thought: “Let’s get some homeless people in these houses. It will look bad for homeless people to be in these houses and they bulldoze them.” I knew Lori Renteria, and I called her and asked her if she could get some homeless people over here. And when she brought them over here, they were very intelligent and didn’t mind speaking to the television and to the newspapers. And being as intelligent as they were, they made very good speeches. They told the public about how the university was bulldozing houses that homeless people could live in and would be happy to have.
BO MCCARVER: We made a lot of press every time we did something. We were always mindful of keeping our paws in the paper and on television. What I tried to do was get key players over here who would come out real authentic on the 6 o’clock news. Real people who maybe stammered and stuttered a little when they talked and weren’t all that articulate. And the juxtaposition against them was G. Charles Franklin, the vice-president for business affairs at the university. The man speaks like an undertaker. He makes statements like: “A prudent person knows, when he buys a property near a large institution, there’s a possibility that his property will be annexed.” Now, we had him with people here who were blind and widowed. And they’re saying: “I don’t know what I’m gonna do if the university keeps coming eastward.” It got to be pretty hard to make a case for the university.
I didn’t have to do much grooming. I just told them: “Don’t ever get the property value issue into here. We don’t want to make an issue out of how much money the university will give us for our property.” That’s what they always try to make an issue about. They’d say: “The houses are assessed by three independent parties, and we give them fair property value…” Well, they would. There’s no issue about that. But that wasn’t the issue. The issue was, we didn’t want to sell. We just kept slamming them around in the press, and they couldn’t stand it. That’s why they sent Ed Sharp over to try to oil the waters and take care of it.
ED SHARP: Back when all of this began, I was working for Charles Franklin. I was a bit like a utility infielder. Like a baseball player who can play different positions. And so it was natural for me to get involved in this issue.
I had a very strong feeling that institutions should work hard to understand the neighborhoods that they exist in. There might not be ultimate agreement between the neighborhood and the university in all cases, but we ought to at least try to reach a consensus on what should be done. But because of the way this started, it was a challenging role to try to get that dialogue going. A decision had been made by the board of regents—I think it was probably 20 years ago — to begin to purchase the land as it became available on the open market but to not indicate who the purchaser was. And I think that set the neighborhood against us. So I felt like what the university needed to do was be willing to go talk with folks and take the heat. And in some cases, there was a fair amount of heat.
Ultimately the negotiations really went on between the neighborhood association and the university. Karen and John were advising the neighborhood association, but I think they respected the fact that it was really the neighborhood association that spoke for the neighborhood. I was kinda the go-between. I’d go talk to the neighborhood, here their side and then go back and talk to the administration. Part of it was just the effort to establish some kind of relationship.
Well, there was a lot of discussion. And the leaders of the neighborhood association were willing to enter into a dialogue, and there were various proposals and counter-proposals… until finally we reached a kind of agreement.
KATHERINE POOLE: In the beginning, UT wanted 16 blocks. Well, they were able to get 8 blocks, and the neighborhood kept the other 8. My street sort of divided the 16 blocks, so they stopped the encroachment at my street. And then eventually — I believe it was in ’97 — the properties that they had bought east of my street which is where they stopped, they deeded us those properties. They gave them to us.
KAREN PAUP: So MHMR was out of the picture. And Veon was the neighborhood representative on the City’s Community Development Commission that makes recommendations on where the city spends its housing money. He recommended that the neighborhood itself run transitional housing. It got set aside as a category. And out of social services money, the city gave Blackland $200,000 to fix up the houses.
JOHN HENNEBERGER: By that time, this group of middle-class retired black people had found themselves the allies and colleagues of a bunch of homeless activists because they were both fighting the same giant corporate university.
Nobody went and dropped a homeless facility in the middle of Blackland. That never would have worked. But when it became an evolutionary thing, it really works. It’s not an external board of directors forcing a homeless facility into the neighborhood; it’s the neighbors saying: “Well, y’know, we got homeless people — we got kids who are related to people who grew up in this neighborhood who are homeless. That’s not too bad. If we can have some say-so over the way this thing works, that’s not a bad deal.”
So we took the money from the city, and we got these volunteers from churches. Every weekend, the neighborhood and we and all these church people were out there until we repaired all those houses.
KAREN PAUP: John and I had this vision for the transitional housing: All the homeless people would have a kind of community, and they would all face in, and… But the neighborhood said: “No. They’re making a transition. They need to have the identity of having their own house. Their houses should face the street; and they should each have their own little yard area.” Then we got donated landscaping. This group was gonna come and xeriscape the whole thing. And the group said: “We should have a big play area in the back so that all the kids could play together…” But the neighborhood said: “No. Each family needs its own fenced yard, so you can put your kid in the backyard and watch your own kid and not mess with somebody else’s kid.” The neighborhood was really thinking very practically about how this should work.
BO MCCARVER: Now there’s two kinds of property we have over here. We’ve got regular rental housing for low-income families. And then we have others that are transitional housing. The people in the transitional houses have a year to get on their feet and then a six-month extension if they need it. Their places are stocked with donations — everything from toilet paper to bathwater — and the utilities are turned on. We have a social worker, part time, who screens them. The board approves them. And we put them in there. They have to do certain things to get on their feet, but we have a fairly good success rate of getting them out of the housing and into a more stable situation.
Well, now we’ve got 30 houses with 30 families.