AUSTIN (KXAN) — It was a concern brought up by the president of the Austin EMS Association well before a historic ice storm hit our city earlier this year, and now, some of those challenges have been laid out in a winter storm after-action report.
Selena Xie asked the City of Austin in January — nearly two weeks before the storm reached Austin — to commit to opening its emergency shelters for people living on the streets. She said it would allow EMS and other providers doing outreach to tell people where to go, KXAN previously reported.
But the City of Austin’s policy didn’t require it to do that.
“EMS and other resources that work with people experiencing homelessness could not really get out the information because we didn’t really have any information to get out,” Xie said. “It just seemed so silly that we knew we were going to open them. We could have gotten information out sooner to people and thereby saved lives.”
At the time, the City of Austin told us it was poised to open the shelters, but the deadline to activate is no later than 9 a.m. the day of “because of the time required to activate and mobilize all the required resources.”
A recently released winter storm after-action report found several issues surrounding the City’s effort to house people experiencing homelessness during a time when temperatures and ice had the potential to kill, including better preparation.
“Shelter types, locations and operating hours should be considered earlier in the event. There was uncertainty regarding daytime sheltering options, 24-hour operational shelters and congregate sheltering for the city at large,” the report said.
It’s something Antony Jackson, the founder and CEO of We Can Now — a nonprofit that provides resources, gear and transport for people experiencing homelessness — says could have helped them get more people to shelter.
“Let’s be proactive. Let’s try to get the word out there long before it comes so people have a chance to strategize on what they want to do,” Jackson said. He noted many people didn’t have time to find a place to put their things before having to commit to shelter.
KXAN asked Austin’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to lay out changes it’s made to its homelessness response since that storm, specifically tied to communication, differentiating shelter types, staffing and capacity. A spokesperson said the next step in the process is to work through a “Corrective Action Plan” that will be released by the City later this year.
“It will not be until the CAP is completed that we will have more details on some of your questions,” that spokesperson said.
But Mayor Kirk Watson told KXAN the City has taken steps, including hiring a new director of HSEM, hiring and training people on communication best practices during severe weather events and hardening shelter locations.
“We didn’t have what I consider to be just a basic fundamental resilience under those circumstances. Well, this City Council has already voted as part of the budget to make sure that we have generators, and we harden those facilities,” Watson said.
Watson also noted the City has taken many steps to get people off the streets and into temporary shelters in the first place, including opening up the Marshalling Yard, leasing the former Salvation Army shelter downtown and securing funding from the state for more beds.
The Austin EMS Association also says it’s worked with the City Council to encourage the City to widen its window for opening a shelter to at least 48 hours. Still, Xie hopes the City will lean on common sense when the City inevitably sees another dangerous storm.
“I think in emergencies we should always make exceptions, and this was clearly a time when we should have made an exception, and City bureaucracy is just very slow to respond. I hope next time that those calls for exceptions and being flexible given the situation will be headed,” Xie said.