Counting the cost of homelessness
Memorial honors 93 people who have died on the streets of Austin.
By Lisa Ogle
Monday, November 13, 2006
A flourishing live oak tree on Auditorium Shores stands as a symbol of the homeless people who have died in Austin through the years. Sunday, 93 simple stakes topped with winter hats stood to the left of the tree, honoring homeless Austinites who died this year alone.
As mist rose from Town Lake before sunrise, about 60 people gathered at the Homeless Memorial to remember the dead, many known only by their first names or by street names.
Colleen Troxell, a 16-year-old Westlake High School student who helped plant the memorial tree 13 years ago, led the ceremony.
“Now, it’s grown, just like our love and compassion has grown,” she said.
The sunrise memorial service is intended to raise awareness that people are living and dying on the streets of Austin, said Richard Troxell, Colleen’s father and president of the nonprofit group House the Homeless.
“The message is, there is a real human cost for Austin not being successful at dealing with its homeless problem, and that real cost is human life,” Troxell said.
Austin has nearly 4,000 homeless residents, according to a 2005 Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department report, less than 0.6 percent of the city’s total population.
The city is trying to address the problem of homelessness, City Council Member Lee Leffingwell said.
It has added 70 mats to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless downtown and set aside $1 million in the past budget for transition housing, he said.
Leffingwell said he knows there’s more to do.
The next steps will include financing the treatment of abuse problems and psychiatric care for the homeless and moving on a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, he said.
Musicians Sara Hickman and Nelson Mock showed their support at the service, performing several songs each.
Hickman said she’s been involved with homeless efforts for 20 years.
“I wish that everyone would come” to these types of events, she said after the memorial. “I think they’d be surprised when they’re standing by a homeless person. It would open up a connection for them.”
Jo Ann Koepke, who has hemiplegia and epilepsy, has been homeless twice and was on the verge again before she filed for permanent disability. She has been volunteering with House the Homeless since 1992.
It’s tough to lose 93 of your friends, Koepke said.
But taking time to attend the memorial Sunday helped: “It’s always healing to me.”
Homelessness “can happen to anybody,” she said. “If we work together, it doesn’t have to happen to anybody.”