City, shelters ready for homeless as cold front brings deep freeze

5:02 p.m Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 Local
Sarah Richardson, 34, tries to stay warm in a homeless camp near Texas 71 and Riverside Drive on Friday. With temperatures expected to plunge into the 20s, Sarah Richardson will be among the hundreds that the city will try to shelter from the cold weather. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Whenever the forecast turns frigid, the city’s cold weather shelter plan kicks into motion.

As the sun sets and temperatures drop, the line of people seeking shelter builds downtown outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. They might stay there, be sent next door to the Salvation Army’s shelter or go to any of the city’s temporary facilities set up at churches or recreation centers.

City officials and housing advocates expect this scene to play out once again on New Year’s Eve as temperatures drop below freezing Sunday evening in the wake of a weekend cold front.

“It’s a wonderfully collaborative program to make sure that no one has to sleep out in the cold, because the cold can be life-threatening,” said Jan Gunter, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Austin.

The National Weather Service forecasts that temperatures are expected to plummet into the mid-20s overnight Sunday into Monday, well below the 32-degree threshold for activating the plan when it is dry outside.

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The frigid air will stick around for a while. High temperatures Monday and Tuesday are expected to remain mired in the low- to mid-30s and should drop back into the 20s overnight. Highs should inch back into the 40s by Wednesday, but the nights are expected to remain in the 20s.

City officials and social workers say they are prepared for the extended wintry blast.

“From November through March, one of the first things we do is check the weather,” said Trey Nichols, the director of the ARCH, the main downtown shelter for men. “We are ready.”

The city’s standard winter plan enlists two churches and a recreation center to add 300 to 350 additional beds to the roughly 450 usually available at the ARCH and Salvation Army downtown, officials said.

That’s enough beds to house nearly half of the 834 people believed to be living on Austin’s streets at any given time, according to this year’s annual tally by the advocacy group Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

If more homeless people show up than expected, officials said they have plans to quickly open a second recreation center, potentially adding 100 to 150 more beds if needed, said John Cummings, a senior emergency plan officer at the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“We’ve never hit max capacity while doing this,” he said.

As part of the plan, city agencies and nonprofits that regularly work with homeless people spread the word about the sheltering options available as the cold weather approaches.

“We’re trying to help as much as we can,” said Tanner Hunt, also with the emergency management office. “We know we’re not reaching everyone.”

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