Austinites gather to honor the lives of 251 people experiencing homelessness who died this year
A year ago, Denver Gonzalez was crouched under a live oak tree, meticulously braiding copper wires around a small stone, sculpting a rendering of the very tree that gave him shade. Dog tags hanging from the live oak jangled in the wind on an early November morning as fog burned off over the lake.
It is a tree on the shores of Lady Bird Lake that, for nearly 30 years, has been a nondescript monument to those lost on Austin’s streets – hiding in plain sight along Austin's popular Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.
On Sunday this year, Gonzalez found himself back under the tree, sharing the very same shade he did a year ago. A lot has changed since then. For one, he is no longer homeless.
That is a blessing that has had challenges of its own. He is still getting used to the carpet and to the loneliness that reminds him of spending time in solitary confinement when he was incarcerated.
But the support – the same support that helped him get off the streets and into housing – and the sense of community have been familiar constants. Both were on display Sunday morning as Austinites gathered to remember the lives of the 251 people who died on the streets this year.
Gonzalez was one of around 50 people along Auditorium Shores for House the Homeless' annual vigil in which the names of the dead are read aloud, each coupled with the ring of a bell to mark their passing.
Like last year, this has been a particularly deadly year for Austinites experiencing homelessness. The 254 dead last year was the highest number of deaths in recent memory. This year kept pace, according to the tally pieced together from Travis County medical examiner records and from personal accounts of those within Austin’s homeless response system.
That tally is likely an underestimate and one that came in a year that saw Austin reinstate criminal penalties on sleeping and camping in public and saw a historic freeze that killed as many as 60 people living outdoors, by advocates’ estimate.
In a year of flux, Gonzalez says the support was crucial after he was removed from his camp at Austin City Hall earlier this year and lost all his belongings, and as he began his journey into housing. He hopes to provide the same support for other Austinites who are, like he was, living outdoors; who might have been kicked out of their homes, like he was; who might be veterans.
“That probably happened to a lot of these individuals on the streets … and it hit me kind of hard. A lot of these individuals, they were pushed out of their family. Their family just gave up on them a little bit, and I just want to be that street family that’s there for them, that has any advice or support that they can get.”
Chris Baker of the nonprofit The Other Ones Foundation echoed Gonzalez’s call. Baker and The Other Ones run the Esperanza Community, a state-owned lot that houses a village and resource center for Austinites experiencing homelessness.
Baker told the crowd Sunday there is a myth surrounding the mystery of how people become unhoused.
“It’s not drug addiction. It’s not mental illness. It’s not the loss of income that causes people to find themselves living in this devastating experience,” Baker said. “It’s the catastrophic loss of support.”
Alvin Sanderson used to live outdoors, in culverts and drainage tunnels along Lady Bird Lake. Since becoming housed he, like Gonzalez, has been active in advocating for Austinites experiencing homelessness. For him, there have been undeniable low points this year.
On top of the pandemic, the city of Austin's reinstatement of its camping ban was a loss for advocates like him. But that loss also galvanized unprecedented investments in combating homelessness both
at the city and county level. Nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in largely one-time, federal relief money was allocated this year, all told. Still, he wishes the issue was not a political football.
Closing out the vigil, Sanderson tripled down on the call to support those experiencing homelessness.
“We need to rise up and help everybody, because they are our fellow man,” he said. “Compassion is the natural state of the human heart, and we need to have compassion – strong compassion … that makes a difference in people’s lives.”