As the sun rose Sunday morning, members of a local homeless advocacy group read the names of 168 homeless men and women who died in Austin this year, and mourners hung origami birds on the Tree of Remembrance on Town Lake.
The event was part of House the Homeless’ 18th annual Sunrise Memorial Service. Prayers, singing and the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaque were all part of the ceremony. Sunday’s ceremony was the second part of Austin’s Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which runs from Nov. 13 through Nov. 19. Other events include a tour of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, a homeless veterans awareness luncheon and a screening of “The Soloist” at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.
City Councilwoman Laura Morrison, the event’s keynote speaker, said the city needs to improve its efforts to help the homeless, stressing access to health care, job training and affordable housing.
“Every one of these people was a son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother,” Morrison said. “They may have been invisible in life but they aren’t anymore.”
She said these untimely deaths need to be avoided in the future, and although Austin is weathering the recession better than other cities, many Austinites are still living on the streets.
House the Homeless president Richard Troxell read a passage from his book “Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage,” which urges the inclusion of the homeless in American society.
“We will rise like grass through cement,” Troxell said. “We come from every walk of life. We are America. We are living and dying on our streets.”
Jim Cooley, director of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, said a few of his clients passed away this year and were honored at the event.
“We called him Guitar Mike and Indian Mike,” Cooley said of a homeless Austinite he cared for. “He had been homeless and in bad health. I remember five years ago seeing him and thinking that he probably wasn’t going to live for more than a month, but he ended up dying this month.”
Meeting homeless people changed Jessica Burkemper’s perspective on the issue. A volunteer at the resource center, she said getting to know the homeless individually made her realize they should not be neglected.
“First impressions are not always key,” Burkemper said. “I may have been afraid or scared the first time I went down there, but now they are my friends and they protect me and I trust them with my life. They are people just like you and me.”
Amber Fogarty, the chair of the community education subcommittee for ECHO, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said volunteering and understanding what causes homelessness is important.
“We have to continue to remember that we have to work together to end homelessness so that this doesn’t continue to occur,” she said.