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Amid The Pandemic, Austin Remembers The 256 Homeless Deaths On Austin's Streets In 2020

A woman hangs a dogtag on a tree, symbolizing a person experiencing homelessness who died in Austin this year.
Julia Reihs
Emmy Sawvel, a homeless advocate who previously experienced homelessness herself, fixes new tags on the memorial live oak at Auditorium Shores during Sunday's annual rememberance of Austinites who've died on the streets.

In a year marred by uncertainty and loss, homeless Austinites and advocates gathered Sunday morning to remember and read the names of the 256 homeless Austinites who died in 2020 – an increase of more than 70 deaths compared to last year.

Along Auditorium Shores, dog tags representing each life lost were nailed to a memorial live oak on the banks of Lady Bird Lake. The silver tags fluttered and jangled with each gust of wind on the blustery morning, while Austinites on the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail went about their Sunday exercises largely unphased.

The annual recitation of the people who died on the streets normally draws dozens of Austinites of all stripes, but this year's was both in-person and livestreamed online.

Valerie Romness Homeless Vigil 11 15 20.jpg
Julia Reihs
Valerie Romness sifts through names of Austinites from last year's memorial. In 2019, 184 Austinites died while experiencing homelessness. That number increased by 72 people in 2020.

Valerie Romness, an advocate and editor of Austin's newspaper for homeless folks, The Challenger, participated in the in-person ceremony and helped coordinate the livestream with the help of Caritas of Austin.

While the lion's share of participants watched online, Romness and a handful of Austinites gathered in person, all distanced and masked. Romness said she was glad the livestream allowed people to experience the event, which has been a mainstay for close to three decades.

Denver Homeless Vigil 11 15 20.jpg
Julia Reihs
Denver, an artist experiencing homelessness in Austin, sculpts a wire replica of the memorial live oak on Sunday.

"Even if they weren't here, they'll know it was done, that they were here to guard these souls," she said, gesturing to the homeless Austinites who came out to pay their respects. "So this is beautiful, if you ask me ... This is a family out here – a family unit."

2020 has been a particularly grim year for homeless Austinites. The 256 deaths this year is the most in recent memory, Romness said, and a jarring increase compared to last year's 184.

Some, like John Young, who was fatally shot on a bus stop bench in September; David Colbert, who died from complications as a result of COVID-19 in April; or Katy Joy Kingdom, an artist who died of cancer shortly after giving birth, were remembered with makeshift memorials at base of the live oak.

Others – including six men and one woman – didn’t have any ID or anyone to identify them upon their deaths. They were listed as "Friend" on the list comprised of names submitted to Caritas for the memorial and a list from the Travis County Medical Examiner.

Thom Woodruff came to pay respects for his friend, Colbert, who was known to many as Sasquatch Dave. Woodruff said he understands the need to distance amid a pandemic, but wished more Austinites would realize the dangers and disparities faced by homeless folks.

Katy Joy Kingdom Homeless Vigil 11 15 20.jpg
Julia Reihs
An attendee fashions a memorial for Katy Joy Kingdom, who died in April from cancer shortly after giving birth.

"I wish more people were here. I wish more people remembered," he said. "More people dead, fewer people witnessing it. [It's just the] times, yeah?"

While the city doesn't have a hard count on the number of homeless Austinites who have died as a result of complications related to COVID-19, the city's interim Homeless Strategy Officer Vela Carmen told the Austin City Council last week that just over 100 homeless Austinites had tested positive and recovered.

Thom Woodruff Homelessness Vigil November 152 020
Julia Reihs
Thom Woodruff came to pay respects to his friend, David Colbert, known to many as Sasquatch Dave.

As the ceremony wrapped up, Emmy Sawvel, an advocate who's previously experienced homelessness, played "The White Rose of Black Town Lake," a song written by Deb E. Dee back in the earlier days of the annual vigils that's become an unofficial theme.

"I'll go down to the water that divides this town," Sawvel sang. "Not lost; not homeless, but now I find that not having shelter has become a crime."