Austin again readies emergency freeze plan to shelter homeless


Highlights

Officials say plan to shelter homeless people worked well over New Year’s cold snap.

Officials pull the plan back off the shelf as forecasts show another freezing spell hitting Austin.

As another blast of frigid air pushes Austin back below freezing at night, authorities are once again revving up their winter action plan to help house the city’s homeless population.

It would be the second time in two weeks officials have pulled the plan off the shelf as forecasts show temperatures dropping below freezing overnight and into the 20s Saturday night.

The National Weather Service forecast Friday even included another chance of snow, freezing rain or sleet Tuesday morning.

“I’ve slept under bridges, train trusses (and) sewer pipes,” David Myers said in the Friday morning cold. He was one of the dozens crowded outside of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or the ARCH, one of the two main shelters downtown. Given a choice, he said, “I go inside.”

Most recently, officials put the cold weather shelter plan into action when a record-setting four-day cold snap hit New Year’s Eve, sending temperatures plummeting into the 10s and 20s across the metro area at night. Authorities opened three temporary shelters — enlisting two churches and one city recreational center — to help relieve the city’s two main downtown shelters and provide beds for at least 500 people each night.

“Everything that I’ve heard back from and everything that I was involved in went smoothly,” said John Cummings, a senior emergency plans officer at the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “We had great communication and coordination.”

Data provided by ARCH showed that 507 homeless people checked in for shelter on the evening of New Year’s Eve; that grew to 560 by Jan. 2, when temperatures fell to the low 20s overnight. Totals for Jan. 3, the last night of the freeze, were not immediately available.

It was a textbook deployment of the city’s standard cold weather shelter plan, Cummings said, which calls for opening the two churches as shelters — one for men and one for women — and a Parks and Recreation Department center to provide up to 350 additional beds if needed.

A parks department spokeswoman said it plans and budgets to open recreation centers for shelter up to 35 times a year. And the city has a contingency plan to open a second recreation center if the standard plan proves insufficient, potentially bringing the total of additional beds up to 500, Cummings said.

“It’s a beautiful collaboration between private and public agencies … to ensure that no one has to sleep in the cold,” said Jan Gunter, a spokeswoman with the Salvation Army, which operates the second main shelter downtown.

Of the 560 people sheltered Tuesday, 176 were placed in beds at the city’s two temporary shelters, freeing up space downtown for late arrivals. On an average night, the two downtown shelters provide about 450 beds.

“We did everything we could to bring people in from the around the building,” said Trey Nichols, the shelter director at the ARCH. “We’re going to take people all night long.”



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