Rogelio Altamirano carried a large, black backpack as he approached a near East Side convenience store on Thursday.
A dark sleeping bag was strapped to the side of the pack heavy with the personal items of William Darrell Hawkins, who was shot and killed Oct. 14 outside the same store. Altamirano, who slept nearby under the Interstate 37 underpass with Hawkins and dozens of other people experiencing homelessness, was keeping the backpack to give to Hawkins’ family members.
“He was like a brother,” Altamirano said of Hawkins, who was widely regarded as a friend and protector for many people who often call the streets home.
Altamirano joined friends, family members, and workers at the Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM) Thursday to remember the life of 35-year-old Hawkins, who was gunned down just across the street from the ministry where people receive free groceries, clothing, and connections to financial and housing resources.
Even if all Hawkins had was a dime, he would give it to someone if they needed it, a man who goes by “Happy” said.
“We slept through the cold, through the rain, but he never let it get us down,” Happy said.
Growing up with Hawkins, “he was everything a big brother should be — protective, made sure I was OK, made sure I was in the right places,” said his brother Adam Harris, 29, who lives in Houston.
At the Downtown Food Store after the ceremony, Altamirano shared a tearful hug with Harris and Margaret Hawkins, Hawkins’ mother, who offered Altamirano a handful of cash that he rejected at first, but ultimately thanked her for.
Later, Altamirano drank from a bottle of Brisk Watermelon Lemonade Iced Tea, Hawkins’ favorite, in remembrance.
They stood just steps away from where Hawkins was shot around 10 a.m. by a man who told police he felt threatened when Hawkins approached him as he pumped gas. The man, who has not been arrested, drove around the block after the shooting but parked nearby and cooperated with the police when they arrived. Security cameras at CAM captured much of the incident; the organization gave the footage to the police. It is not known whether the man, whom police have not identified, will face charges.
“Because this is an ongoing investigation, we are unable to provide additional information,” said Mariah Medina, SAPD public affairs manager. “SAPD has met with the Hawkins family and will continue to provide them with updates as the investigation continues.”
After watching the security video of the shooting at the convenience store at 531 Elm St., CAM CEO Dawn White-Fosdick said Hawkins didn’t appear to be threatening the shooter.
“We watched a young man, William, walk towards the gentleman by the truck, and in about five to 10 seconds he was shot in the stomach,” she said. “There was no screaming or jumping. … Then [the man] walked around him or stepped over him, got in his car, and calmly drove off.”
As of Thursday, Margaret Hawkins said there hasn’t been much progress in the police investigation. She has not been able to see her son’s body.
“I think that if I could see him and put my arms around him … that would help,” she said. “But I know it’s going to take time.”
She would often visit her son in San Antonio and ask him to come with her back to Texas City, where she lives.
“He didn’t want to go,” Rev. Ron Brown, who met William Hawkins nine years ago while he was leading Haven for Hope’s outreach team, told the San Antonio Report. “It’s a struggle getting people to understand who he was and what he wanted to do in his life. … Who’s to say we’re not living God’s purpose because we live on the street — because we live in an environment that’s not normal.”
Hawkins could have left to stay with family, but he also considered everyone sleeping on the street to be his family, Brown said.
“Somebody had to be a light. Somebody had to be an example,” he told those gathered at the memorial. “He kept his light shining.”
Hawkins grew up on the city’s Northwest Side, attending Hobby Middle School and Clark High School. Eventually, he worked as a day laborer through a temp agency and lived in various apartments or hotel hopping, said Brittney Ackerson, who previously worked at the temp agency.
Ackerson got to know Hawkins in a new way through her work as a street outreach specialist with Corazón San Antonio, which operates a resource center downtown and provides hot meals, showers, and medical care.
He wasn’t ready to accept housing assistance, but he was often the one that encouraged others to succeed, she said.
“I remember many times that he would come in with a sandwich and somebody looked like they hadn’t eaten or was hungry and he would literally give them his food — that’s just the type of person he was,” she said.
White-Fosdick hopes that Hawkins’ violent death will help raise awareness of the prejudice that people experiencing homelessness face.
“We were outraged at his death,” she said. “We felt like it was a result of being homeless — when someone felt threatened just because he was homeless.”
She hopes that learning about Hawkins will help people have more compassion for people experiencing homelessness.
“I don’t think anybody chooses a life that’s this difficult if they don’t have trauma, if they don’t have some kind of a mental health issue going on,” she said. “I don’t know what [Hawkins’] diagnosis might be or what was going on with him personally, but yes, all of the people that we serve that are unsheltered and on the streets like this are suffering in some way.”
Patrons at stores or pedestrians who are approached by homeless people should not feel obligated to give them money or food, according to a joint press release from organizations that work with homeless people, including CAM, South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, SAMMinistries, Corazón, Centro San Antonio, and Haven for Hope.
“You can always walk or drive away if you feel uncomfortable,” the press release said. “While many people on the streets could use someone to talk to, it is often best to leave it to the professionals. If you are concerned for the person’s well-being, call 3-1-1 for a district outreach worker to be dispatched for a welfare check and ensure they are connected to available resources.”
At the time he was shot, Hawkins likely was asking the man for spare change, Ackerson said. After seeing the security video, she said she felt enraged that Hawkins suffered alone.
“He lay there for several minutes with people walking by him, people pulling up to the gas pump, and nobody comforted him,” she said. “Nobody bent down and was like, I’m here for you.”
Hawkins was rushed to a hospital, and an SAPD spokeswoman said he died before 11 a.m.
Based on how his friends and family described Hawkins, he likely would not have walked by someone in distress.
“The legacy that [Hawkins] is going to leave behind is not him being homeless,” Ackerson said. “It’s not him struggling with mental health and substance abuse. It’s a man that helped other men and women walk when they couldn’t walk.”