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Local non-profit reacts to city of Austin's homeless winter response

(Photo: CBS Austin)
(Photo: CBS Austin)
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A local nonprofit is criticizing how the City of Austin handled parts of its homeless winter response during last week’s cold snap.

Sasha Rose with grassroots organization Austin Mutual Aid wants to see changes when it comes to homeless winter preparedness.

"We were horrified to realize that there were so many people that had no idea that cold weather was coming and no way to prepare for it," she said.

RELATED| Local non-profit reacts to city of Austin's homeless winter response

Rose says on Christmas day due to a city policy shelters closed once temperatures thawed out above freezing.

The City’s policy is to activate Cold Weather Shelters if the forecast is predicted to be:

  • 32 degrees or colder overnight
  • 35 degrees, with rain/wet
  • 35 degrees, with wind chill of 32 or colder

" We advocated for them to stay open, but that was not possible," said Rose.

The City of Austin says although shelters closed Sunday, per its policy when temperatures dropped again that night, they re-activated warming centers. Also adding they kept guests fed with breakfast and box lunches.

"There is no dedicated cold weather shelter. We're using the rec centers. The centralized requirement is that all people make it to the One Center downtown to Barton Springs from all over the city. We're talking about people without phones, without vehicles you know the means to be able to make it to that location. And then from there being routed to alternative location and shelters being opened based upon that need, is really ineffective and inefficient, and it's inaccessible, plain and simple,” said Rose.

A rep with the city of Austin explained: "The City’s process for running overnight shelters includes registration at a central embarkation point – the One Texas Center on Barton Springs Road – before transportation is provided to one of the shelters. The registration process helps the City manage limited resources, including shelter capacity, as effectively and efficiently as possible."

In another effort to help those living on the streets stay warm, over 200 volunteers gathered to donate blankets, jackets, and other supplies before the storm hit. However, they weren’t able to be used.

“Unfortunately, two days before that winter storm came. A large encampment was swept. So, people's lifesaving supplies were essentially stolen from them,” said Rose.

CBS Austin learned the city of Austin was not responsible for the sweep. The Texas Department of Transportation is.

In a statement from TxDOT, they say, “TxDOT crews typically perform cleanups on Tuesdays. When crews arrive, individuals experiencing homelessness are given the opportunity to remove all of their personal belongings before the cleanup occurs. What is abandoned and left behind is what is cleaned up. All of the locations where state cleanups occur are posted with signs that say: Prohibited Camping on Public Property State Law.”

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“We found people sleeping four to a tent because their tents had been stolen, sometimes more than four people. We found people who had the beginnings of frostbite on the tip of their fingers,” said Rose.

Data the city provided shows Austin and partnering agencies helped shelter hundreds of some of the city's most vulnerable at five overnight cold weather shelters between Thursday evening and Tuesday morning.

The number of people staying at Cold Weather Shelters ranged from 459, on Friday, Dec. 23, to 115, on Monday, Dec. 26. In total, 1,559 shelter stays were recorded between Thursday, Dec. 22, and Monday, Dec. 26.

“I want to give credit where credit is due. It's the first time since the Arch opened that I saw those three nights that there were no people sleeping outside the arch. Credit where credit is due. That warms my heart honestly,” Rose said.

To read more about what the city did to help the homeless during the cold weather. Click here

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