By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Clad in a zebra-print miniskirt and flashing a toothless grin, Leslie Cochran raised his cup to the crowds before him and cheered.
"You," he told his admirers, "make me feel like I'm somebody."
In this liberal, eclectic city of nearly 800,000, Leslie is very much somebody.
He is a three-time mayoral candidate, a columnist, a peace activist, an enthusiastic cross-dresser -- and the most beloved homeless man who ever hit the streets of the capital of Texas.
And Wednesday was his 60th birthday party.
"It's not my birthday," he confides, batting his eyes at a passerby, black sequins glittering on his donated party clothes. "The real one is Friday. But one thing I've learned in life is that tomorrow is promised to nobody, and if I wait for my actual birthday to celebrate it, I may not make it."
After decades of living on the street, that is not necessarily a joke. Leslie is among hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless on any given night across the country, according to numbers released earlier this month by government researchers.
As he ages and the tips slow down, fundraisers like his birthday party -- and the support of his network of fans -- will be increasingly important to his survival, supporters and advocates said.
"For somebody who is older, it is obviously much more challenging to be able to maintain your health while you're living out on the street," said Jeremy Rosen, policy director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
It is nearly impossible to track the number of homeless people in the United States, experts said, because so many of them are in places that are difficult to find.
In 2010, 1.59 million people spent at least one night in a shelter or in transitional housing in the United States, according to an annual study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development released in mid-June.
Leslie, who is known by most only by his first name, has snubbed offers of permanent homes, choosing to stay with a network of supporters in their homes or businesses.
According to interviews with his family, Leslie grew up in Florida and had a short turn in the U.S. Navy reserves. When he was in his 30s, he suffered a head injury that put him in a coma for a month.
When he woke up, his lifelong stutter was gone, as was his desire to live in a permanent home.
He landed in Austin in the mid-90s and became a local celebrity.
Hundreds turned out to his party at a local restaurant on Wednesday, with big-name Austin musicians playing and donations rolling in.
It is nearly impossible to find someone who has lived in Austin for long and who doesn't have a Leslie story.
He gets tips from tourists who take his picture in his signature zebra thong. He strongly criticizes the police for their treatment of homeless people. He writes a column in the local homeless newspaper, The Challenger. He has his own iPhone application. He is the subject of a documentary in production called, "Have Thong, Will Travel."
"Leslie has this innate spirit," said Michelle Randolph, a member of the documentary's production company, Austin-based Freckled Fanny Films. "For someone who doesn't look like anyone else, there's something about him that everybody can connect with."
(Editing by Greg McCune)