In life, Leslie Cochran was a symbol of Austin's weirdness. In death, Cochran poses more challenging questions regarding homelessness in Austin.
In late February, reports emerged that Cochran – a homeless, scantily-clad icon of “weird” Austin, known for high heels, tiaras, and the occasional mayoral run – had been hospitalized in poor health.
A friend of Cochran's told KUT News he was found unconscious in a South Austin parking lot, and was moved into a hospital. Later that week it was reported that Cochran had briefly awoke from a nearly two-week coma, but his condition had not improved.
In a eulogy, friends and acquaintances of Cochran recalled the many chapters of his life. Among Cochran’s many publicity-generating moments were runs for mayor in 2000 and 2003; former Austin Chronicle city desk editor Mike Clark-Madison recalled an interview with Cochran where he arrived in a conservative, stewardess-style power suit. “He certainly wasn’t the craziest person I ever dealt with running for office, by a long shot,” Madison recalled.
But despite the fond recollections, the fact remained that Cochran, one of Austin’s most recognizable and celebrated faces, lived on the street – a fact that hastened his death.
Local activist Debbie Russell, who served as a spokesperson for Cochran in his final days, said for most of his life, Cochran chose a life on the streets. But following a stroke in 2009, his prospects and health worsened. And owing to that fact, Cochran had less resources than before, creating a viscous circle.
“Up until 2009, his situation was purely by choice, and he could have changed that. I think after that there was a level of cognitive ability where he really did need some help, but he was resistant to it.”
Cochran’s passing has been touted as a harbinger of changing Austin, the “danger of losing the simple, quirky vibe that made it special in the first place,” as an op-ed in The New York Times, noting Cochran’s death, put it.
But less ink has been spilled regarding what Cochran’s death says about what it means to be homeless in Austin.
“He had some serious problems, and people tended to ignore that fact,” says Richard Troxell, president of local advocacy organization House the Homeless.
“He certainly represented all that was weird in Austin … He wanted to get attention for himself like everyone else. He did that in a flamboyant way, and it allowed us to not really address or focus on the real issue at hand, which is that we have people living and dying on the streets of Austin.”