Friends are mourning the death of a man who had escaped the danger of living on Austin’s streets and was on the verge of making a better home for himself, only to be slain by an attacker last week.
Burford was formerly homeless himself, said the newspaper’s editor and director, Valerie Romness. At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Burford’s friends plan to remember him by gathering under a tree at Auditorium Shores, where a memorial plaque honors homeless individuals who have died in Austin.
“He’ll be deeply missed,” Romness said. The staff meeting Wednesday “was rather shocking because we had just talked to him last week. … It’s shaken us up,” she said.
Romness said she has no clue who would have killed Burford or why.
Austin police got a 911 call March 10 at 7:53 p.m. about a man, later identified as Burford, who collapsed near a bus stop at East Seventh and Comal streets. He died soon after medics drove him to University Medical Center Brackenridge. Police said they believe Burford was stabbed nearby before making his way to the bus stop.
Austin police haven’t yet identified or arrested a suspect in Burford’s death, which they are investigating as a homicide. Detectives declined to say more about the case to avoid jeopardizing the investigation.
Burford earned money by washing the windows of businesses, including hers, Romness said. He had been living in a boarding home at Seventh and Comal streets in East Austin, and he was getting to the top of Section 8 housing waiting lists, friends said.
While many Challenger articles tackle community issues, Romness said that Burford primarily wrote fiction, often about characters who were out fishing.
“He was a great contributor to our writer pool,” Romness said.
Robert Bentley, who met Burford as a volunteer for the food bank run by Westover Hills Church of Christ in West Austin, said he thinks Burford’s work at the Challenger gave him the self-confidence he needed to seek out permanent housing.
“I think maybe the most wonderful thing about his writing is it brought him into contact with people who valued his life,” Bentley said. “I think he started to see that and take actions and make choices that valued himself.”
Bentley had known Burford for about five years. Burford started coming to the church because it was right in front of a Capital Metro bus stop, Bentley said.
Burford provided insight into the best ways the food bank, which typically caters to low-income people with homes, could also help the homeless community, Bentley said. For example, those who are homeless need canned food with pop-tops, instead of ones requiring can-openers, and they need food that is ready to eat and doesn’t require preparation.
Burford also taught the food bank’s volunteers that purchasing bus passes for homeless individuals can be a huge help, Bentley said.
Burford also would often use the church to make copies of pamphlets and documents about homeless services in Central Texas to give to other folks he knew who lived on the streets, Bentley said.
“I think, more than most homeless folks, he was a little bit more outgoing and a little more willing to share information about what his needs were and what other homeless needs were,” Bentley said. “He was really self-aware and really candid about what his challenges were.”
He said he felt honored to see Burford change his life.
“He achieved an astonishing amount of personal growth in the last few years of his life, and I’m really glad he got to experience that. He got to be around people who were really vocal about how they cared about him at the church and the Challenger,” Bentley said.
Of course, that made the news of Burford’s killing even more shocking, Bentley said.
“After all the changes he’d made in his life — he was living in a home, living independently,” he said. “It was really surprising to have that end now, as opposed to when he was facing a lot of risks on the streets.”
For now, Bentley said he’s focused on Burford’s upcoming memorial, but he is concerned about the homicide case as well.
“I also know that cases like this are traditionally not the kind of cases that get a lot of police resources thrown at them,” Bentley said. “Knowing that has kind of tempered my expectations a little bit.”