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John Oliver discussed Austin's battle with homelessness on his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight." (YouTube)

Austin's homelessness crisis took center stage on Sunday's edition of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver"—highlighting moments from the last year such as the machete-wielding pseudo-guard at City Hall's former encampment and the declining perception of the homeless among Austinites.


Austin has faced a homelessness crisis for years, though the issue became highly noticeable when Austin City Council repealed a longstanding public camping ban in 2019. Though the ban was reinstated by voters in May 2021, the city is still struggling to come up with meaningful solutions to transition the homeless off the streets.

"The story of homelessness in this country is grounded in a failure of perception compounded in failures of policy," Oliver said on his show. "That notion that homelessness isn't related to economic policies but simply reflects the problems of the individuals experiencing it still informs the way it's discussed today."

Homelessness is hardly an issue unique to Austin—other major cities like Los Angeles and Oakland were included in the segment—but as the homeless population grows and legislation divides residents, the HBO news commentator said even those who consider themselves to be liberal voters are finding themselves at odds with the predicament.

"Even some residents of Austin, famously a blue dot in a red state, have said it's been a struggle to reconcile their feelings about their homeless neighbors," Oliver said, right before pulling up a clip from VICE's investigation into Austin's housing crisis.

In the clip, Austin resident Sara Zamarripa said, "as your safety declines, so does your compassion. Every time I pick up human shit, my liberalness gets lowered one more notch."

Oliver said there is a valid reason for that occurrence, while disturbing, to happen. On the other side of the argument, Los Angeles only has 55 public toilets that are accessible 24-hours for its more than 66,000 homeless. Austin has at least 17 provided by the city for its 3,160 homeless people.

Although he acknowledged that Austin's situation was less than ideal, Oliver blocked out many reasons why someone might find themselves without housing: medical debt, job loss, fleeing domestic violence, having been recently released from prison, fear of separation from family or pets, LGBTQ+ youth fleeing homes where they aren't accepted and the city's rapidly rising cost of living.

According to Oliver, 70% of extremely low-income families spend more than half their income on rent and only 37 affordable homes exist for every 100 low-income households across the nation.

"It doesn't take much for people to suddenly find themselves without stable housing," Oliver said.

On top of that, Oliver said housed people often don't have the correct idea on what homeless services actually provide. For example, homeless individuals that choose to check in to a shelter are often not given a place to stay like a hotel but instead, given a bed to sleep in from the 8 p.m. mandatory curfew to the 7 a.m. sharp mandatory check out.

Possibly the biggest issue Austin is facing in regards to the homeless community is the "NIMBY" or "not in my backyard" approach that has historically been taken. Austin's city council members are no exception—after the camping ban was reinstated in May, city council directed city staff to propose temporary sites for the homeless in each district, but when it came down to it, all either argued against a camp in their district or stayed quiet.

As Oliver closed out the show, he laid out how he thought a change of perception would benefit the city's homeless: don't assume the homeless have chosen that life through drugs and addictions, but instead, recognize the "nationwide divestment" that has been made in social programs.

"The very first step here is a collective change of perceptions," Oliver said. "I really hope that is one of the key things that sticks in your head from tonight's show."

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