How the City of Austin Uses Cold Shelters

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Austin relied heavily on its faith-based community partners in the event of inclement winter weather, said Dianna Gray, the city’s homeless strategy manager.

Once the pandemic hit, these faith-based centers, which tend to have a higher concentration of older volunteers, Gray said, began to refuse accommodation requests, citing concerns for the health and well-being of their volunteers. With Austin-Travis County currently under stage 5 coronavirus risk-based guidelines, the city has turned to its own internal network of volunteers and resources.

Cold Weather Shelters are overnight facilities run by the city on a case-by-case basis, with day-to-day activations determined based on current and forecast weather conditions. These include overnight conditions at or below freezing or 35 degree temperatures combined with rain or high winds.

Cold weather shelter information is shared through a hotline, as well as with reverse text messaging services for homeless people, Gray said. The city’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is also issuing a press release, and listservs and social media are being used to spread the information.

Now that many faith-based centers are unable to house those in need of shelter, the city’s parks and recreation department is helping identify which facilities to use. All those in need of shelter report to One Texas Center from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. the night of cold weather shelter activation, before being transported to an undisclosed shelter site.

Currently, the three recreation centers combined can serve 225 people — a decrease in capacity size, Gray said, due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

But now, she says, the city is evaluating its parameters to determine when and how to conduct cold weather shelter operations. This comes, she said, as some community members have shared concerns about the accessibility of all shelter users having to travel downtown to register and the temperature thresholds that justify the activation.

“We hear a lot of community feedback, concerns about the scope, scale and access to cold weather shelters. So should the temperature threshold be higher, because it’s still terribly cold 37 degrees outside? ” she said. “How do people access it? Is it reasonable to expect everyone to be able to get downtown? And what is our capacity? So I think all of these questions are reasonable, but they have significant resource implications.

Currently, Gray said the city does not have an allocated budget for cold weather shelters. Over the years, the program has relied heavily on its network of volunteers; now with COVID-19, she said the pandemic has impacted both shelter capacities and volunteer operations.

A proposal under consideration includes offering overtime to exempt staff to help with shelter operations and expand available resources.

“We are really about to reconsider whether our cold weather shelter plan reflects where we are as a community with the size of our unsheltered population and many of the chronic illnesses we see in the unsheltered population” , she said.

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