AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Feb. 15, in the thick of a historic winter storm in Austin, a woman experiencing homelessness died at the state-sanctioned homeless encampment in the southeastern part of the city.
One week ago, first responders got a call sharing that someone had suffered cardiac arrest, and then arrived at the camp to find someone already dead. According to the National Weather Service, the highest temperature that day at Austin Bergstrom International Airport (four miles away from the camp) was 23 degrees and the lowest temperature was 9 degrees.
The encampment exists on land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation off of U.S. Highway 183 near Montopolis. It was first designated as an encampment site by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in November 2019 during one of the flashpoints in the debate over Austin’s homelessness policies. Last year, residents elected the name Esperanza Community for this encampment where more than 100 people now live.
Austin-Travis County EMS responded to a cardiac arrest call at the camp at 4:38 p.m. and found a person with no pulse who was not breathing. A spokesperson for the department said based on call information, there were no efforts to resuscitate the person which indicates the person was likely dead when medics arrived.
The Austin Police Department said it got the call about this incident at around 4:37 p.m. that day and deferred to the Medical Examiner’s Office to share the cause of death. KXAN is awaiting a response from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s office. APD shared that the dead individual was found inside a tent. However, the department said this person has not yet been identified.
The Medical Examiner’s Office said it is processing more than 80 cases that came in since Feb. 13, several of which are unidentified women.
Donald “Hippie” Montgomery, who lives at the Esperanza Community (and was elected to its leadership council) said the person who died there Monday was named Justine. He was not sure of her last name.
Montgomery said he didn’t know this woman well.
“She didn’t talk to a whole lot of people,” he noted. “When she did, she talked coherently and nicely, seemed like a nice lady.”
The day Justine passed away, Montgomery recalled that local organizations had been offering rides to warming centers closer to downtown Austin, but very few people took those rides.
The nonprofit The Other Ones Foundation, who relocated its headquarters to the camp last year, opened its portable trailer office up for residents to stay in during the cold weather, turning on the heater. TOOF also supplied space heaters to the building at the part of the encampment nearest US 183.
In a release Wednesday, TOOF explained it ran two warming centers at Esperanza Community for 24 hours a day, six days in a row, while also helping with emergency food access.
“Tragically, there was a fatality at [Esperanza Community] during the storm,” TOOF said in a release Wednesday. “While we do not know the cause of death, we know that this is not an isolated incident, as unhoused people die in the streets frequently in Austin and beyond.”
The Texas Department of Emergency Management, who helps manage the site, said it rolled out a “severe weather contingency plan” for the site, bringing in electric heaters, cots, and blankets to this building at the site near U.S. 183 for residents to use.
Montgomery said Justine “apparently decided to wait the night out in her tent.”
“I don’t know if it was hypothermia or not, but hypothermia would be my first guess, she was skinny,” he continued.
Montgomery and the other residents found out Justine had died the following day when they saw the white coroner van on site.
“Those of us who were prepared, it was basically the same stuff just a little more focused, those of us who weren’t prepared, it was a life or death.”Donald “Hippie” Montgomery, resident at Esperanza Community on cold temperatures last week.
Even for the residents who survived the week, Montgomery explained that the cold weather was challenging. He said many tents got slammed by the snow and ice, leading to around thirty people heading to the warming stations at the site.
He said Justine’s death is the first “direct death of someone who was known to the community” at Esperanza Community since residents Michael Compton, 52, and Barry Covington, 53, were found dead there around 10:30 a.m. on August 2, 2020.
In September, Austin Police Department said Compton and Covington’s deaths did not appear to be suspicious. APD said Compton and Covington were found in two different locations at the camp. Their deaths happened during a much hotter time of year, on a day when the National Weather Service said the high temperature was 99 degrees and the low was 71.
Montgomery recalled bringing water to Covington in the morning shortly before he passed. Covington’s tent was already getting warm from the morning heat, he said.
Montgomery worries about the safety of residents at this camp during extreme warm and cold conditions. While Montgomery has plans to leave and find housing of his own, he believes many of his neighbors will not be able to do the same.
“There are a lot of these folks who are never coming out of here, so do they just want to leave them to the wind?” he wondered aloud.