Unhoused Texans weather another winter storm with little aid

Tents were lined up along the Interstate 35 frontage road in Austin during last years winter storm. (Montinique Monroe For The Texas Tribune, Montinique Monroe For The Texas Tribune)

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When an Austin church told William he couldn’t stay there with his two dogs during the ice storm last year, he and his wife decided to brave the subfreezing temperatures in their tent under a bridge. They used two stoves to stay warm and rationed out canned goods for meals.

This year it was different. William, a 45-year-old Austin resident who is experiencing homelessness and asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, secured shelter ahead of the winter storm last week. But many others stayed out in the cold and, despite the promises made after last year’s devastation, William said aid efforts again fell short.

“One thing they didn’t think about was the people that were left out there, whether or not they would need things like heat, propane, blankets, thick clothes,” said William, adding that homelessness aid groups passed out some sweatsuits and blankets ahead of the storm, but they were too thin to combat the cold. “It was like the cries for help that actually were needed went on deaf ears.”

After a deadly freeze last year in which the unhoused were among the most vulnerable, local officials vowed to do a better job next time, particularly with emergency communications. But during last week’s storm, many unhoused Texans still did not have adequate information from municipalities about where to find shelter and how to get there. And compounding the problem, advocates say recent state and local policies that target people experiencing homelessness have made unhoused Texans more hesitant to seek help.

In Austin, “the city had a year to prepare and broadcast a plan for cold weather shelter in the case of a dramatic freeze,” said Scott Hoft, an organizer with Stop the Sweeps Austin, a local advocacy group against the clearing of homeless encampments. “The city left houseless people, their friends and service providers wondering what the plan was.”

In Houston, officials are reporting at least three people without shelter died when temperatures dropped last week. It’s unclear how many people died or required treatment across the state after being exposed to the cold during this year’s winter storm.

Lack of communication

One of the biggest takeaways from last year’s storm at both the state and local levels was the need to improve emergency communications. During the freeze, Texas failed to provide accessible and life-saving updates on outages and inclement weather. A November audit of Austin’s 2021 storm response found that the city left many residents without critical information and did not effectively reach people experiencing homelessness.

A year later, advocates report a similar break in communication.

Last-minute announcements of shelter plans this year echo those of a year ago, when 24-hour shelters were not opened until two days into freezing weather, Hoft said. Bryce Bencivengo, a spokesperson for the city of Austin, said shelter plans are announced the day they are activated to prevent confusion.

The city of Austin also directed people in need of shelter to dial 311 this year, but Cam Bond, an Austin-based organizer and social worker, said her calls to the phone line went to an automated voicemail throughout the storm.

Bond said she was fielding calls as late as 4 a.m. from unhoused people who did not know where to find shelter or how to get there. She tried to call the 311 line herself and could not get information about transit services available.

“Why [does the city] not have the capacity to go out there and publicize information that is crucial to these folks’ literal survival?” Bond said. “Crisis is impending, and they have no information.”

Bond also received reports of unhoused families being separated by gender at city shelters.

“We’re talking about people who live in really tight-knit relationships and communities with other people for their own physical safety and survival. And so something as simple as ‘we’re separating you, men here, women here,’ is not only transphobic, it’s also really harmful and really devastating,” she said.

Bencivengo, the Austin spokesperson, said the city’s policy is to keep families together at shelters. When asked about the reports Bond received, he said he couldn’t imagine why families would have been separated at the shelters this year.

When local governments do not meet the needs of unhoused people, organizers say they are forced to mobilize — even when they are strapped for resources.

In Houston, volunteers at the Black Trans Texas Connection picked up unhoused people and transported them to the group’s shelter, Thrive House. The group housed 17 people during last week’s storm, organizers said. Black and trans residents are especially vulnerable and are among the last to get accepted into a shelter or have access to a safe environment, said Black Trans Texas Connection founder Sarah Pope.

Houston at the time was advising residents against travel. Pope said the city should have hired staff to transport people to shelters so she and other organizers wouldn’t have to put themselves at risk.

“There needs to be more shelter, and there especially needs to be a trans shelter put into place in Texas. We have an emergency shelter open every day, but we do this work on our own,” Pope said. “The government has so much money. Money we don’t have as we hear our community crying, and it is devastating.”

The Houston mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More need help, fewer seek it

An affordability crisis is driving an increase in homelessness across the state. Texans are moving out of metropolitan areas, driving up the cost of housing in rural areas, said Tresha Silva, the executive director of the Bastrop County Emergency Food Pantry.

In Bastrop County, a mostly rural region 30 miles southeast of Austin, a growing unhoused population has resulted in a greater demand for food, shelter and resources.

“If I compare the number of homeless or unhealthy people that have come in from last year to this year, there’s growth for food assistance and some of those other basic need items that we provide,” Silva said.

The greater demand for shelter can be especially challenging for rural counties, where resources can be more limited. Bastrop County has just one shelter that opens during bad weather conditions. County officials also opened warming centers last week.

Nick Thompson, the statewide initiatives manager at the Texas Homeless Network, said recent state and local efforts targeting homeless people make Texans less likely to seek help.

The legislature passed House Bill 1925 last year, which amounts to a statewide ban on homeless camping. Texans now face a fine of up to $500 and a Class C misdemeanor if they camp in public spaces. The city of Austin, which has struggled with a rise in homelessness, reinstated a local camping ban last year.

“This really incentivizes folks, a lot of times, to stay out of the public eye so that they’re not going to be contacted by the police, so they’re less likely to be found or called upon by law enforcement officers,” Thompson said. “It makes it a lot more challenging to be able to connect folks and know where they are with the services that are available.”

William has been without shelter since he was 18 years old. He’s been in Austin with his wife for seven years. Since camping in public spaces was made a criminal offense, he’s been subject to city sweeps of homeless encampments, during which cleanup crews have taken his belongings.

He said that while he and other unhoused people in Austin managed to get through another winter storm, the dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness will continue.

“We can’t sleep, so we’re always tired. We can’t make a job interview because we’re always worried about APD [Austin Police Department] taking our stuff. It sucks being homeless here now. I had people that used to look out for me,” William said. “The only difference between an ice day and a non-ice day is the ice. These things don’t change year-round.”

Correction, Feb. 11, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the city of Austin’s public camping ban was reinstated this year. It was reinstated in 2021.