‘I sleep outside of Google to use the wifi’: SXSW through the eyes of Austin’s homeless
As SXSW grows in size and value, so does its host city’s homeless population. The Drum explores what a tech festival looks like when you don’t have a hotel to sleep in the once the lights are switched off.
Scooters were the talk of the town at SXSW. Every attendee shipped into Austin, Texas this year had an electric two-wheeler story to tell: the one with the Uber near-miss, the one with the invisible pothole, the one where the cops created a leaning tower of confiscation.
The injuries drunkenly procured by lanyard-wearers were plastered up and laughed off. But for the man sat on 6th Street holding a sign above his swollen, bandaged leg – “Scooters Did This” – the cacophony of unregulated mass transit was nothing but a validation of his invisibility.
The arrival of the smartwatch-wearing elite illuminates the disparity of wealth in whichever town they descend upon, either permanently or fleetingly. Attendees at Mobile World Congress are warned not to wear their badges outside the conference centre under threat of muggings from Barcelona’s economically deprived, while San Francisco’s worsening housing crisis now acts as shorthand for new money’s power to flagrantly displace swathes of poorer citizens.
But there are few places that highlight the developed world’s widening wealth gap as well as Austin during SXSW manages to. The festival now encroaches upon the entire downtown district, so those in the city without a place to sleep are forced to move around it, claiming space under bridges between venues, on the corners of brand activations and in grassy banks next to the lines for Uber and Lyft rides.
As the festival grows each year, so does Austin’s homeless population. In April 2018 the city reported a 5% increase in people experiencing homelessness between January of 2017 and 2018, with 1,014 out of the 2,147 homeless counted sleeping unsheltered.
Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, has stated he is “concerned about the homelessness challenge that we have in this city, not only for the people who are homeless but also for the impact that has on surrounding businesses and tourists and festivals that we have in this city.” His office has approved a $30m action plan to solve the issue.
The visibility of this population during SXSW is in part due to the city lessening its powers to force rough sleepers to move, believes Austin local Kevin Price, who founded tech-for-good platform Hearing the Homeless in order to connect rough sleepers with modern banking. “They used to sweep it under the rug real bad,” he says. “Last year they kind of stopped doing that, which is good because you can't hide these issues.”
Nonetheless, local homeless charity LifeWorks is aware of police routinely ‘moving on’ Austin’s homeless during the festival, which upsets the lives of rough sleepers in a multitude of ways.
“The police department has a priority – as they should – of keeping SXSW attendees safe, and that translates to the sometimes physical removal of people experiencing homelessness from the downtown area,” explains LifeWorks’ director of communications and marketing, Julianne Hanckel.
“This means that access to some services may not be as easy as before, or that a safe place someone has found to spend their time in is taken over by events, build-outs or has closed access.”
Front Steps, another local charity that runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless – known locally as the Arch – also experiences disruption from the thousands of tech and culture execs that descend on the city in March. Executive director Greg McCormack notes SXSW makes it difficult for his staff to get to work and find a parking spot.
“In all, it definitely puts a microscope on the Arch and people outside the Arch, most of who never engage in services or come into the shelter. The public perception is difficult for Front Steps.”
For Hanckel and McCormack’s clients – those experiencing homeless – SXSW presents a mixed bag of opportunity. The bright lights and loud music, which runs until at least 2am most nights, can present themselves as a source of joy or a psychological trigger to those with underlying issues related to such relentless stimulation. Some clients use the festival’s microeconomy to find hourly work; others can’t wait for it to be over so they can get some sleep.
William Michael Morris falls into the latter camp. Going by the name of Bo he’s been sleeping on streets across of the southern states for more than 23 years. Now he has a welcome companion in his dog, Champ, after witnessing too many of his human confidantes – from South Carolina to Texas – cycle in and out of the jail system. He has a phone that runs without a sim card. He sleeps outside Google’s offices on 2nd Street so he can connect to the building’s free wifi and download emails.
Morris works as a window cleaner during the day and panhandles (his term) for his dinner in the evening. But when we meet on a weekday afternoon during SXSW, he’s not on the clock: he forms part of a small percentage of Austinites who brace themselves for an economic setback when the festival comes around.
“I ain't making money during SXSW because I have no windows to wash,” he explains from a bench not one minute from the main congress center. “All the paint on the windows [of buildings that brands take over] completely knocks me out of work for two weeks. For two weeks I have no work. How do I support myself with no work?”
Morris sits next to a man called John on the 2nd Street bench, which has effectively been sliced into two courtesy of the city’s implementation of hostile architecture. John has tried to get work in a kitchen during SXSW but it’s hopeless, they say, during this two-week period.
“We're the undesirables and the undesirables are not supposed to be seen during SXSW,” Morris says. Like the event’s delegates, he and his acquaintances often head to 6th Street of an evening – it’s where the action happens past 11pm.
But “at 5.30am they come in with water trucks to clean the street, and if you're too close to the road you get wet. And after the water trucks they send somebody to wake you up, and if you don't get up right then, they send the police to arrest you".
Hardly anyone here for the festival has spoken to him, he says, and the ones that do only want to take a photo of his dog. They tell him they have no money.
His response is one of bafflement: “You're in the middle of Austin during SXSW – there's nothing in Austin right now that costs you any less than $120 to enjoy. So don't tell me you have no money.”
Along with the city of Austin, the organizer of SXSW did not respond to requests for comment on this story. It does, however, publish an economic impact study each year.
The 2018 report (the 2019 version has not yet been released) pegged SXSW’s impact on the Austin economy at $350.6m – a figure bolstered substantially by the 12,900 individual hotel reservations made across the two weeks of the event.
The Four Seasons, five minutes away from Morris’ bench, rakes in a minimum of $645 per room per night. By contrast, neither Front Steps nor LifeWorks has ever received any direct support from the festival’s organizers, as far as Hanckel and McCormack are aware.
But while SXSW places its faith in trickle-down economics, a number of attendees look to help the homeless population directly. Price entered the festival’s user-generated session proposal platform, Panel Picker, and pulled together a line-up of experts to speak about using technology to fight homelessness and its repercussions.
He also staged a Hearing the Homeless march during the festival and handed out food to those on the streets.
Kevin Adler was also there to speak on a panel but took to the streets with his own non-profit platform, Miracle Messages, which reconnects people experiencing homeless with loved ones they have lost touch with. Adler, who primarily works in San Francisco, managed to connect Morris to his estranged sister in under 10 minutes via his app. The two hadn't spoken in six years.
Attendees’ willingness to help has gone wrong in the past, however. BBH Labs turned homeless people into wifi hotspots in 2012, literally strapping Front Steps' clients up to 4G devices and asking attendees to donate $2 per 15 minutes of human-router-hybrid internet used. The idea came under international fire on the grounds of exploitation, forcing BBH to clarify the details of its 'charitable experiment'.
“It was not carried out again after that year,” recalls McCormack, who did not work at Front Steps when the project went live. “What I heard was it really looked bad PR-wise, but the clients didn’t mind it at all. [It’s] hard to hit right on both sides.”
Adler imagines this fear of a CSR initiative gone awry is what prevents many attendees from using their creative abilities to help Austin’s homeless during SXSW.
“I think there's probably a lot to do with liability, PR perception, the fact something could go horribly wrong,” he says. “It's much easier to have this sterilized, carefree environment where it's just fine. But instead of just giving away a few more free tacos ... what would it look like to stage a food or clothing drive, or do a volunteer session walking the streets? Why isn't the local shelter a venue for SXSW? Why isn't a band playing there?
Front Steps’ message for attendees looking to help the homeless populations they encounter is to donate to its charity fund directly, so that it can offer more clients more help. Meanwhile LifeWorks’ Hanckel would like to see an increase in the amount of festival programming dedicated to solving wider issues around homelessness, using Austin's issues as a starting point.
“Homelessness is not just an Austin issue – it’s happening in major cities across the USA and across the globe,” she says. “It is a large issue, that needs a large solution, but it’s not impossible. I believe Austin will be one of the first cities to set that precedent.”
These actions may be small, but Adler equates helping the individual over overhauling systematic causes of homelessness (a lack of affordable housing, a dearth of substantive mental health treatment to name a few) to developing a cancer treatment over solving all sicknesses. Racial segregation was once systematic, he argues, and it was the civil disobedience of the many that overturned the system.
In this case, civil disobedience isn’t necessary. But breaking civil norms – by acknowledging and speaking to those experiencing homeless – is.
“The people who come to SXSW – the artist, the musician, the app developer ... these are all people who, at one stage, were probably a paycheck or two from not being able to pay rent,” says Adler. “I think normalizing and destigmatizing what homelessness is ... would go a long way towards creating more of a sense of solidarity. I think we can do more as people to try to get past some of those stigmas that keep us disconnected in the first place.”
And that, in so many words, is what Morris hopes for, too, when the trucks roll into town and his clients' windows are painted over again for SXSW 2020.
“It’s that word: homeless. ‘You must be a problem because you're not on the same level as the rest of society’. Well, I see the rest of society – I see them walking around me every goddamn day with a frown on their face and an attitude on their shoulders. If that's what it means to make it, I'm glad I'm not doing it.
“I don't want the condo. I don't want the car. I want respect.”