AUSTIN (KXAN) — An audit of city emergency temperature shelters found operations to have insufficient staffing, inadequate training, and a lack of emergency resources like generators. The city has since said it’s outsourcing those operations for the 2023-24 winter season.
The audit results come the same week that cold weather creeps in, potentially putting the unhoused in danger.
The audit says the pandemic had a lasting impact on staffing for warming and cooling centers and that plans had not been updated since 2019.
Results also showed the city was relying heavily on support from local nonprofits and faith-based organizations to facilitate its warming shelters—and that volunteers likely stopped coming to help out of concern of catching or spreading the coronavirus.
In a meeting where auditors presented their findings, Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup said a new focus was being placed by the department on rebuilding relationships with agencies it has relied on in the past.
“Now it’s about rebuilding those connections with community partners,” Sturrup said.
Auditors said results of surveys taken by Austin Parks and Recreation Department employees showed that those staff members had been tasked with helping run those emergency temperature shelters. A majority of those surveyed say they did not receive adequate training for their roles.
In response to the audit, the city of Austin gave us this statement:
“As part of a plan to address some of the challenges highlighted by the Auditor, the FY23 budget included new funding to contract with a third-party provider for regular Cold Weather Shelter activities. Last month, Council approved a contract with the Austin Area Urban League to provide shelter operations during future cold weather activation periods. This winter, AAUL will support City of Austin Cold Weather Shelter activities, with a plan to assume full responsibility during the 2023/2024 winter season. In the meantime, the City has updated its plans to make clear when shelters will be activated.”City of Austin
The cold creeps in
Along East 7th Street, people experiencing homelessness walk up to the doors of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to try and get a spot inside its shelter before the sun goes down and the weather turns cold.
Staff inside say they had to turn many people away on Saturday as it was already full. They also said the waitlist for a bed in the shelter was also more than 150 applicants long.
This was unwanted news for unhoused neighbors like Zachariah who was worried about finding a place to stay as the week’s cold took hold.
“I just wanted some place to shower, some place to sleep,” Zachariah said.
The ARCH operates its shelter every day and is not an emergency warming site. People who were turned away Saturday were offered an alternative shelter at 505 Barton Springs Road. This site is an emergency shelter and would only be available to those in need if temperatures dipped to freezing. It is also about a 30-minute walk away from the ARCH.
Homeless neighbors like Zachariah said they’re not sure just where they’ll end up over the next week of cold weather, but they hope wherever it is — it will be warm.
“I’m just looking for somewhere,” Zachariah said.
For the city of Austin’s shelter hotline that will update when/if emergency temperature criteria have been met, call 512-305-4233(ICEE).