Austin rethinking cold weather shelter plan

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On nights when the temperature dips below freezing, several Downtown churches take turns opening up their doors to Austin’s homeless population.

But health concerns due to the pandemic will keep them from doing so this year. Staffed by mostly older volunteers, the churches are out of the mix.

Bryce Bencivengo with Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department says on a usual cold-weather night, the demand averages anywhere from 250 to 400 people.

“The cold weather sheltering plan is based around putting a lot of people in a congregate setting, which is not advisable,” he said.

This year, to promote social distancing, he says Austin Parks will open up several of its recreation centers. They’ll be staffed by paid city employees.

Bencivengo expects the city to be able to shelter a similar number of people with the recreation centers. He noted that logistics could be challenging, such as the need for more buses.

“I think we’ve all experienced the things we took for granted and things that have been well-oiled machines for us personally are more challenging now,” he said.

The city was not able to tell KXAN how much staff they expect to need for the cold weather shelters.

Amy Price, who works with Front Steps, says sleeping outside in the cold is devastating to one’s well-being. The organization provides services to people to help them transition from homelessness to finding housing.

She says if someone isn’t able to access a cold weather shelter, a blanket may be the next best thing.

“The effects on anybody who is not sleeping through the night because they’re being awakened and moved along or because they’re really really cold and can’t fall into a deep sleep, that messes a person up,” said Price.

That is why Front Steps is urgently pushing its annual blanket drive. It’s accepting only fleece blankets, twin size or larger. While the nonprofit is collecting them through February, Price says the goal is to distribute a large number of them in early December.

“We are hoping that if we hit our goal of 1300 blankets, there will be a day when there is a blanket in every bag delivered to people who are living in campsites this winter,” she said.

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