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March 17, 2022

Letter to City of Austin: Improve inclement weather response for unhoused people

ECHO fully agrees with this letter from the Homelessness Response System’s Leadership Council, and we encourage the City of Austin to adopt more robust, humane, and equitable strategies for dealing with inclement weather.

February 14, 2022

Mayor Steve Adler

Thank you for your service to the people of Austin, Texas. We are contacting you regarding our city’s emergency response to homeless individuals during inclement weather.

With deaths among homeless Austinites hitting record numbers in 2020 and 2021 consecutively—some of which were direct results of the winter storm—capacity of cold weather shelter beds has decreased even as the number of people attempting to access them has risen. This is a pivotal and necessary moment to ask what improvements can be made to our system to provide better outcomes for the people who access it.

Historically, Austin has relied on faith-based organizations to provide locations for cold weather shelter and Front Steps to operationalize the system. In the wake of COVID shutting down hosting opportunities and Front Steps moving away from running the back end, our system is running on fumes and ephemera. In previous years, people entering cold weather shelters were offered clothing and showers and cooked meals. This year, they were offered none of these. For breakfast one morning, they were offered a single corn dog, with few options for folks requiring alternatives. There were no clean socks or underwear to offer anyone, nothing so much as Advil for people nursing broken bones. For multiple days, people were expected to wear the same clothes, without so much as a bar of soap offered to wash in the sink.

These issues speak to a larger problem: by not having a discrete funding stream to maintain inclement weather operations, we mar its sustainability. Our city provides less inclement weather support to unhoused people than is offered in other Texas locations. Our system triggers at 32 degrees dry and 35 with precipitation or high winds; in contrast, Fort Worth’s system triggers at 35 dry, 40 with precipitating factors and Waco triggers at 40 degrees no matter what. Houston maintains an emergency plan for heat, a topic that Austin hasn’t broached. Hypothermia sets in as someone’s body temperature goes lower than 95 degrees, which is more than possible at temperatures above freezing; direct contact with the ground is a known risk factor, as are age, substance use, and general exhaustion.

That being said, a simple change in temperature threshold is not the solution. Prior to COVID and Prop B, many unhoused people already had difficulty knowing when cold weather shelter would be available. Reduced access to services and the disruption of word of mouth within unhoused communities has exacerbated the lack of flow of information since then. The physical inability for some folks to be able to reach the access point can present an issue as well: in the wake of Proposition B forcing people away from downtown, Austin needs to provide more access points to shelter.

Ultimately, Austin needs to move toward a calendar-based response to cold weather. Not only would this ease the confusion of access for clients, but it would have benefits for Austin’s ability to address homelessness. Cold weather shelters are an important access point for many unhoused people who may not have previously touched the system to engage. There were people staying in our cold weather shelters this year who had never heard of a coordinated assessment or Sunrise Navigation Center or ECHO. This is also true for people who have may have heard of services but have distrust of systems as a whole: many people who have heardof these services but do not engage them still access cold weather shelter.

In order to connect folks to services through shelters, relationships and trust need to be built, neither of which can happen if the maintenance of these facilities is ad hoc, inconsistent, and leaves people’s needs unmet: the coldest weather many days occurred7 am—right when people might have been asked to leave if not for last minute provisions to remain open during the day. On other nights this year a client who entered cold weather shelter in Austin without shoes or long pants might have left without either, in below freezing weather.

For those who did engage services, decisions over whether shelter would be open or not were sent down after day centers had opened so that people accessing them still couldn’t receive clear communication. Likewise, there wasn’t clear communication to folks running the shelters; confusion over whether every single person entering needed to be tested for COVID or simply screened bubbled up at the same time as inconsistent messaging around whether people were allowed to leave during the day to go to work or the store. Recreation center staff without training on de-escalation were tasked with communicating rapidly changing requirements to clients. It did not go well. During the confusion, some people left, not waiting to find out whether they could return, whether special provisions could be granted to their pets, whether they’d be allowed more food.

We must do better, and we can. The Leadership Council, as the governing board of the Austin/Travis County Continuum of Care and with feedback from our community, asks that the city moves to devote funds to a discrete pool to maintain a calendar based cold weather shelter system with trained staff and clear channels of communication.

For additional guidance, please see this report from the National Coalition for the Homeless:

Winter Homeless Services

Thank you for your leadership,

Leadership Council

Ruth Ahearn, LMFT

Leadership Council Vice Chair

CC: City Manager Spencer Cronk, Juan Ortiz, Austin City Council

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