Longhorn, lifelong scholar David Carter asks for change

By Ryan Chandler

David Carter spends most days seeking help and greeting students on The Drag. Photo by Ann Mark Photography.

AUSTIN — Every morning, David Carter takes the #7 bus to the corner of Fourth and Lavaca and completes the trek to his trusted corner on 24th and Guadalupe.

Many students at The University of Texas at Austin know David’s face, but few know his story. Some may see Carter and other panhandlers like him as out of place around campus. Yet Carter feels right at home, because he’s one of them. Beneath his tousled hair, unkempt beard and worn leather jacket, Carter is a Longhorn.

Carter has watched the bustle of UT’s campus from across Guadalupe Street for six years now. Long before that, he was a part of it. Carter, 65, is a lifelong Austinite and has loved the UT-Austin for as long as he can remember.

“I was a student, and before I was a student I had a non-student card to the university library when I was 13,” Carter said.

The Office of the Registrar confirmed that Carter attended UT-Austin as a studio art major from summer 1971 to fall 1975. Before that, he came to the library as a young boy to read about his favorite subjects–American Indians, dinosaurs, the Mongolian Empire — and he has fostered that love of learning to this day.

“One afternoon I was planning to come down here to the stacks, [what] they used to call where they kept all the books in the Tower,” he said. “My father came home for lunch and said ‘there’s somebody down there shooting people.’ That was the day Charles Whitman got up on the tower, which I was going to, and shot and killed 14 people.”

Carter near the Shoe Palace on the corner of 24th and Guadalupe Street. Photo by Ann Mark Photography.

Carter is one of the more than 12,000 homeless or near-homeless individuals living in Austin, according to the nonprofit Front Steps. Among them, 44 percent report mental health issues, 56 percent have experienced trauma or abuse in their life, and 17 percent regularly use drugs or alcohol, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) reports.

Carter embodies the humanity behind these statistics. He developed schizophrenia later in life, he has a history of addiction, and he attributes the end of his collegiate career to an intoxicated accident in which he severely damaged his hand and lost his drawing ability and with it, his passion and his major. His hope for a degree was replaced with destitution, disability and dependence, a fateful combination that left Carter on the street, just as it does to so many other homeless individuals.

“It all started when my parents died,” he said. “They disinherited me. My sister trashed all my shit–over a thousand books I had collected over a lifetime, all the artwork I had done that I hadn’t sold.”

With no inheritance, family support, or employable skills, Carter turned to substances and the streets.

“When I was strung out on crack cocaine, I just lived one hit to the next,” Carter said. “I was sleeping in shop windows, going through vast amounts of cash, living like a pauper.”

In April 2018, Austin City Council unveiled a new strategy to combat the city’s growing homelessness problem. The plan was spearheaded by Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem and District Nine City Council member Kathie Tovo in partnership with ECHO and dedicated $33 million this year to rehabilitative services such as Austin Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Street Team and Austin Public Health. ECHO estimates this level of funding can achieve near zero homelessness by 2020.

“What the city council has identified as its number one priority is homelessness,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in an October interview. “It’s all over the city. We have finally now gotten to the place where we’re willing to put the resources to helping with that challenge.”

Tovo made homelessness her staple platform point during her 2018 city council reelection campaign. She said the central tenants of the new plan emphasize rehabilitation rather than retribution, aiming to provide counseling and support before the criminal justice system intervenes.

“These are social services that will go out in advance of police and help people,” Tovo said.

Ann Howard, executive director of ECHO, said all lawmakers should follow Austin’s example and shift their focus to address root causes and long-term solutions.

“ECHO asks policy makers to focus on solutions to homelessness like affordable, low-barrier rental housing and support services that help tenants get connected to jobs and healthcare,” Howard said.

Carter is a testament to the impact of the city’s effort to combat homelessness. Since he began coming to The Drag six years ago, Carter has kicked his addiction and found subsidized housing funded by the Caritas of Austin, a local nonprofit founded in 1964 that has housed 590 families to date. Because of local support like this, Carter has finally found a foothold in life.

“I haven’t smoked any crack in six years since I got this subsidized housing,” he said. “Caritas pays $681 a month on my rent, has been for the past six years. I pay $235 of all bills.”

Still, Carter says Austin is not doing enough for people like him.

“Rich people… are going to make poor people pay for everything,” Carter said. “You used to be able to ride the bus for free if you had a handicapped card, now you have to pay half price.”

Capital Metro updated their policy to charge seniors and persons with disabilities in 2011. As a handicapped man who relies on public transportation every day, Carter said the policy mounts to an unwelcome financial burden. He also wishes the city would dedicate more resources to homeless shelters, namely the Salvation Army’s Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).

Carter has been coming to The Drag since 2012. Photo by Ann Mark Photography.

“I’d like to see better shelters,” he said. “I’ve stayed at the ARCH… one time a cop asked me if I stayed at a shelter and I said, ‘yes, I have, it was worse than jail.’ The thing is about the ARCH, you’re not guaranteed a bed. All you get to do is pick from a raffle and if you don’t get a little number, you don’t get in. It’s virtually impossible to hold down a job with the state of the Salvation Army.”

ECHO’s “Action Plan to End Homelessness” seeks to address this need. Developed in 2017, the plan outlines goals to redesign shelter services at the ARCH.

Despite Carter’s criticism of local services, anyone who passes him on the Drag knows he maintains a positive attitude and high hopes. He wishes to pick up where he left off at UT so many years ago.

“I’m trying to write a book and have been for the past 30 years,” Carter said. “But I’m so economically strapped that I never have time to even read anymore like I used to… [and] I keep losing my notes out in these streets. I’m hoping for a Pell Grant… I want to go back to school and get a degree in art history then get a teaching certificate. I have 102 credit hours. I’d have to go back to school for about a year. I’d like to go to the University of Texas.”

Until then, Carter will continue to long for a second chance from across the street, never leaving the place and the people he loves the most. He is grateful for the support that the UT community has given him.

“Nobody owes me anything… but people on campus have blessed me time and time again,” Carter said. “It’s just a miracle… so many good friends here on campus. That’s the only way I’ve made it.”

Chandler is a journalism and government sophomore from Houston. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanChandler98 or reach him at ryan.chandler@utexas.edu.