AUSTIN (KXAN) – On Monday, some people experiencing homelessness wore blankets as coats. Others walked around with their hoods up, just trying to stay warm.
“It’s terrible,” Najee Saalim said. “If you’re out here and if you don’t have a tent, you’re really messed up.”
The City of Austin said Sunday it sent text alerts for the first time specifically to those experiencing homelessness as the city got ready for last week’s rain and this week’s cold weather.
According to the city, the Austin Public Health Homeless Strategy Division launched a new text message alert system on Wednesday.
The first alerts were sent to more than 3,500 people, the city said, in preparation for last week’s rainfall and Sunday’s cold front. According to KXAN’s First Warning Weather Team, the lowest temperature in the city is forecast to be 36 degrees on Wednesday.
The city said the text system will let people experiencing homelessness get urgent information and timely updates directly on their cell phones.
“Emergency weather text alerts are not only vital but can be the difference between life and death for individuals experiencing homelessness,” said Adrienne Sturrup, Austin Public Health Director, in a statement to KXAN.
Saalim said said he’s been homeless for a while now. He’s glad to hear about the new system; However, he knows not everyone will benefit from it directly.
“You got to remember a lot of people out here don’t have phones,” Saalim said.
That’s something the city’s Homeless Strategy Department has considered. Interim director of the department, David Gray told KXAN they hope they can least can reach those who do have phones.
“Those individuals who do receive the text messages, we know that they’re sharing the information with their colleagues in the encampments in which they reside,” Gray said.
Gray said their team will keep going around to warn people throughout the city before big weather events.
“This database is built off of pre-existing phone numbers that we’ve collected through our outreach,” he said.
Gray said they want to continue adding numbers to their database through outreach.
The Homeless Strategy Division said “crucial preparedness guidance” can will be sent out via text message to those experiencing homelessness during a variety of circumstances including flood events, elevated seasonal wildfire risk, summer heat advisories and winter storms.
“These alerts serve as their first line of defense against the unforgiving forces of nature. When a storm, extreme cold, or sweltering heat strike, a simple text message can mean the opportunity to find shelter, access warming centers, or be aware of life-threatening conditions,” Sturrup said.
“The importance of emergency text alerts for individuals experiencing homelessness cannot be overstated,” said Gray. “Tailoring these messages to people experiencing homelessness exemplifies the power of technology and community spirit to provide a lifeline and hope when it is needed most. It demonstrates that we, as a community, are committed to protecting the most vulnerable among us during times of crisis.”
According to the Homeless Strategy Division, it intends to quickly expand the use of technology to deliver messages about services including monthly Pop-Up Resource Clinics hosted by Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, cold weather shelter activations and more.
“Importantly, during a significant event that limits the City of Austin’s capacity to provide in-person welfare checks to a multitude of unhoused residents, two-way communication capabilities can be activated to support remote engagement, improved situational awareness, and prioritized response,” said Charles Loosen, Homeless Strategy Division Community Engagement Consultant.
The Homeless Strategy Division said it would launch a campaign to show unhoused Austinites with mobile phones how to get text notifications. It said that outreach teams will have flyers that will have a QR code with a subscription to the homeless alerts service.
The city said Austin Public Health began using mass text messaging notifications early in the City’s COVID-19 response.
The homeless alert system is intended for a specific and highly vulnerable population with unique needs. The City of Austin encourages all residents – regardless of housing status – to sign up for Warn Central Texas emergency notifications.