Body found at East Austin homeless encampment moments before clean-up

A body was discovered at a homeless encampment in East Austin Tuesday morning, just moments before the City of Austin planned to clear out the camp. 

Members of local organizations, like the Austin Justice Coalition, were there and say the city continued the sweep without any consideration of what happened.

"If you walk by here, you'll see the remnants of people's lives: canned food and items that were left behind," said Joao Paulo Connolly, Organizing Director for Austin Justice Coalition.

Scattered items left inside a park off South Pleasant Valley Road in East Austin are the only remnants left of a homeless encampment. It was home to somewhere between 30 and 40 homeless tents before the Austin Police Department and City of Austin officials conducted a scheduled clean-up Tuesday morning.

"It was just kind of a surreal scene," said Connolly.

The surreal part for those who witnessed it happened just moments before the sweep was scheduled to occur. 

Antony Jackson, the founder and CEO of We Can Now, says he was there to aid the homeless. Before he could get started, he was made aware of the gruesome discovery of a dead woman inside one of the tents.

Austin police confirmed to FOX 7 Austin a person was found dead inside one of the tents at the encampment.

"We were prepared for the sweep to happen. We weren't prepared for a dead body," said Jackson.

Jackson says EMS was called immediately.

"When they got here, we thought that that might have paused the sweep, but, unfortunately, that didn't happen," he said.

Connolly, with Austin Justice Coalition, was also out there on scene and said police just taped off the tent with the body inside and continued the sweep.

"I asked our city staff and I asked the officers on site if it would be appropriate to at least pause the sweep for time so that we could better understand what had happened, and we could find some more dignified and humane way of treating the person who had just passed away, but the officers dismissed us," said Connolly.

He says officials dismissed him and other organizers to the other side of the fence who all watched what was happening in disbelief.

"It truly blew my mind when they left her body there. Nobody was there to just respect what was going on except us," said Jackson.

The whole cleanup took around two to three hours. Once it was over, Connolly says that is when the body was then taken away by the medical examiner

"The whole thing is absolutely heartbreaking. We couldn't just witness what took place and go on with our lives. It's just not possible. We can't allow ourselves to become numb to this kind of thing," said Connolly.

FOX 7 Austin reached out to APD for a response on this situation, a spokesperson for the department released this statement:

"AFD and EMS responded to the scene before APD arrived for the park clean-up. During APD’s initial investigation, all activities related to the clean-up were halted. PARD, ARR, and APD agreed that the clean-up would be delayed until it was determined that the area was not a crime scene to preserve. Homicide was contacted by officers on scene and decided they would not respond after a preliminary investigation indicated that the death was not suspicious. The immediate area had been cordoned off by crime scene tape, which remained up and around the deceased’s tent until after the Medical Examiner transported the decedent. The property of the person who died was collected at the scene.

The Austin Police fully recognizes and appreciates the value of human life. Crime scene tape was put up to preserve the dignity and respect of the deceased and to preserve the integrity of a potential crime scene."

This statement is from a City of Austin Spokesperson: 

"Weeks, if not months of planning, have taken place among several City departments for this clean-up to take place. Due to the significant amount of resources allocated to the area (numerous pieces of equipment and manpower), pending inclement weather, and as the clean-up in no way interfered with the investigation or the handling of the deceased or their property, the scheduled clean-up went ahead. APD and City partners – including Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Austin Resource Recovery and Watershed Protection – are taking a responsible approach to enforcing the public camping ban and working with the people who are impacted. The City’s Homeless Outreach Street Team and Downtown Austin Community Court social workers are helping to make sure individuals experiencing homelessness can access support services. Meanwhile, under the Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) Initiative, 182 people living in six of the most unsafe encampments have been relocated to rooms at City-owned bridge shelters and linked to long-term housing. Over a 12-month period, the City and its partners successfully moved more than 1,700 people into housing and out of homelessness. City leaders continue to caution that overall community crisis shelter capacity remains extremely limited. For as long as this is the case, as encampments are cleared in one location, the number of tents will inevitably grow in other areas. That’s why the increase in resources to address homelessness is so important. Last June, Austin City Council voted to dedicate $106.7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward addressing homelessness. Travis County Commissioners Court voted in September to allocate $110 million in ARPA funds to build housing units for people experiencing homelessness in the Austin area. The City is also expanding capacity for crisis services, case management, behavioral health, and rehousing programs."

"I think that we have to ask ourselves when we treat the death of a human life with such indifference and such numbness, what does that say about us as a community?" said Connolly.

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