AUSTIN (KXAN) — As temperatures in Austin continue to dip colder and colder, homeless service providers are at work trying to find ways to offer warmth to people sleeping on the streets.

One of those efforts is being spearheaded by Front Steps, the nonprofit that the general public may know as the operator of Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (the ARCH) downtown.

For this year’s winter blanket drive, Front Steps is aiming to expand its blanket distribution to people experiencing homelessness across the city while continuing to focus on bringing in specific types of sturdy, donated blankets.

  • For those looking to donate to the drive, look here for more details

The ARCH has held a blanket drive for years, but it was only last year that they began asking for the type of blankets their clients use the most: blankets larger than 66” by 90.” Because some of their clients are tall, they learned quickly larger blankets are needed for a person to wrap their entire body in. After surveying people experiencing homelessness last year, Front Steps narrowed their blanket focus even more: they are looking for Queen or Twin and fleece or acrylic blankets. Clients have told Front Steps these blankets are durable, yet lightweight so they can be carried wherever they go.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. December 6, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

The drive started after Thanksgiving and will continue through the winter. Front Steps said they are hoping to receive enough blankets to last into the Spring so that if a cold day in April arises, they will have extras.

In years past, Front Steps has gotten around 300 blankets each winter, but those were often mixed in with other donated items like jackets, Front Steps Director of Development and Communications Amy Price recalled. But in 2019 (as KXAN covered), the nonprofit changed its approach, asking for only donations of those large blankets.

It turned out, Price explained, people really appreciated being advised which blanket to buy and knowing that it would be something actually of use to people experiencing homelessness. After the 2019 drive was finished, Front Steps received and delivered 1,014 blankets.

Hoping for a repeat-success, ARCH is yet again calling on the community to mail in or drop off these specific blankets. Front Steps will accept these types of blankets in any color, though they noted dark colors are preferred.

So far around 200 blankets have been sent to Front Steps this year, but the organization is hoping to receive 1,300 blankets in total to meet the need.

Due to the pandemic, Front Steps will begin handing out blankets to anyone who asks for them at the ARCH. Next, they plan to distribute blankets to those staying at the city’s cold weather shelters. During the pandemic, the city had worked with local organizations to create a meal distribution program for people experiencing homelessness and Price would like to receive enough blankets to contribute one blanket to each person receiving those meals.

Price noted that many people may not realize shelter beds don’t come with bedding like sheets or pillows. Which is why Front Steps also plans to provide these blankets to their clients who sleep in their shelter and their clients staying at the city’s protective lodges.

“It shows that somebody really does care”

As Price was handing out several blankets in downtown Austin, she came across Johnny Wright, 51, who was sitting in a parking lot. Wright, who said he was originally from Houston, has been experiencing homelessness in Austin the past six years. Currently, he lives in a tent underneath I-35

Price unfurled one of the large dark blue blankets and handed it to Wright who murmured an immediate “thank you.” He wrapped the blanket around his legs with a smile.

Johnny Wright (left) is experiencing homelessness in Austin and just received a blanket from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and Front Steps’ Winter Blanket Drive. December 6, 2020. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

“This is a gift from somebody in the city of Austin who saw this on social media and wanted to help,” Price said to Wright, who then buried his head in his hands and began weeping.

After wiping back a few tears, Wright thanked Price again.

“It shows that somebody really do care, about the people that’s unable,” Wright said. “No matter why or what situation they’re in, because anybody could be unable.”

“We thank y’all that who donated and give the blankets for us, we thank y’all a lot, we really appreciate it,” he added, noting that during past winters in Austin, he’s seen other individuals die in the cold.

Sometimes, Wright admits, he gets upset when people passing him on the street judge him or look down on him. He told Price he grew up in the suburbs, that he graduated high school but “messed up” his scholarship. Now he said he works an assortment of jobs while he tries to get an ID, a place to live. His ultimate goal is to be reconnected with his children who live far away.

“I wish the world would get better, to stop passing judgment on each other and to love each other,” Wright said.

One step along the way

Price recognizes that giving out blankets to people who are in deep need of accessible housing can feel a bit like “putting a bandaid on a broken leg.

“Giving a blanket to somebody who is sleeping in an alley or a city park is an act of compassion and kindness and it will ameliorate the suffering that night, but this does not end homelessness, to end homelessness, we’re going to need more deeply affordable housing,” she said.

Boxes of blankets sent in to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless during the winter blanket drive. Photo Courtesy Amy Price.

For the general public, she also believes it will be important to support Austin nonprofits, public entities, and private organizations that are working to improve case management and access to housing. Price would love to see Austin address homelessness to the degree where a blanket drive is not even necessary.

But for the time being, she considers the blanket drive a “humanitarian gesture” which both gives the public a simple way to give something that will actually be used while reminding people experiencing homelessness that there are Austinites who are quite literally willing to “blanket” them with compassion.

“It makes you feel like a person, a person worthy of feeling something nice,” Price said of the blanket drive. “And that’s one of the first steps toward getting back into housing, is feeling, it’s worth the trouble, and I am worth it.”