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HOUSTON — With freezing temperatures expected across much of the state Thursday and Friday, Texas cities are turning their attention to their unhoused communities — the people most at risk from the single-digit temperatures.
The impending freeze is not expected to bring conditions as severe as the 2021 winter storm, and the state power grid’s governing body said this week it expects the grid to stay online. But with temperatures in many parts of the state plummeting into single digits, unsheltered people will be especially vulnerable.
From El Paso to Houston, cities and their nonprofit partners are using a variety of strategies to keep these people warm. They are opening warming stations, distributing blankets and expanding existing shelters.
Complicating their plans before the Christmas holiday: The arctic blast coincides with a rise in migrant crossings at the Texas-Mexico border that has overwhelmed El Paso’s shelter system, leaving migrants to sleep on the street — a dangerous option as the cold weather arrives. El Paso officials have been sending migrants to other cities such as Houston, where organizations supporting new arrivals say they are already at capacity.
Temperatures from Austin to San Antonio are expected to fall below freezing, with lows Friday morning of 12 to 22 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Winds may reach gusts of 40 mph, with possible wind chills as low as minus 5 degrees.
Over the past week, homeless shelter employees and outreach groups have been visiting encampments and providing coats, hats and blankets. Some groups working with unsheltered populations have been frustrated by the lack of preparation and information from officials ahead of the freeze.
“I’m very disappointed in the city of Austin,” said Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie, whose colleagues work directly with people living on the street and have been urging the city to release its plans.
Austin typically announces its plans for warming shelters in the morning if temperatures are expected to hit 32 degrees overnight, a policy that gives outreach workers little time to share information and help transport people to shelters.
After community pressure on Tuesday, the city announced internally and to some advocacy groups that it would open three overnight warming shelters starting Thursday that will provide food and allow some pets. It also imposed a two-hour window, from 6 to 8 p.m., during which people are allowed to register each day.
Xie said the two-hour window to reserve a spot at the shelter was unnecessarily strict and would be difficult for the population.
“We’re prepared to do a lot of work overnight in the next few nights,” Xie said.
Sara Henry, who oversees the city’s emergency communications at the office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the city had been coordinating with homeless service providers for several days about preparations for the cold, and that the registration window is set up to help to manage the city’s limited resources.
First responders can also bring people to shelter after the registration period if needed, Henry said in a statement.
Shelters can’t be the only option to keep people warm, advocates say. Some people opt to stay outside and will need to be well-equipped to survive the cold safely.
“One of the biggest things about the shelters is you have people who don’t want to go because they don't want to leave their belongings behind,” said Antony Jackson, co-founder of We Can Now, an outreach group in Austin that offers meals and clothing to unsheltered individuals.
In Dallas, Wayne Walker, CEO and pastor of faith-based organization OurCalling, said he does not anticipate the city’s shelters to fill up this week.
“Usually, the first time it gets freezing, the numbers are low,” Walker said. “People think, ‘I’m tough. I’m going to live out here.’”
Dallas’ office of emergency management announced Tuesday that it was partnering with local faith-based organizations to open a 360-bed warming shelter in a vacant building, as well as two other shelters, at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church and Warren United Methodist Church. If those fill up, additional shelter will be available at the public library.
The city could see wind chills as low as minus 15 degrees, which could be life threatening over an extended period for people living outside. Nonprofits OurCalling and Austin Street Center will collaborate to pick up anyone who needs shelter.
“We will take anybody that comes through the door,” said Austin Street Center spokesperson Teresa Thomas. “These efforts are low-barrier. You don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops. This type of weather is life altering, life threatening.”
These temperatures are unusual for Texas winters, said Hunter Reeves, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. But unlike the deadly freeze from Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, this will be a much shorter cold blast and will not bring much precipitation.
In San Antonio, outreach workers have been visiting people living on the streets and providing blankets, warm clothing and information about warming shelters. The city will open seven warming centers for short-term emergency shelter, and Haven for Hope, the largest shelter in the city, will expand its capacity to sleep about 200 more people during the freeze.
“Anytime cold weather comes in, we’re always concerned at Haven,” said Celeste Eggert, vice president and chief development officer. “Especially for folks in encampments. We really do our best to get them to come in and get services.”
The city of Houston, which will likely see subfreezing temperatures from Thursday night through Saturday morning, will open five warming centers Thursday that will each provide chairs, blankets and other supplies, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced.
But while some officials are focused on freezing temperatures, others are more concerned about increased numbers of migrants. Title 42, a pandemic-era emergency health order that the federal government has used to quickly turn away migrants, including those seeking asylum, was expected to be overturned this week.
Although Title 42 remains in place for now, the average number of migrant encounters in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector — which also includes New Mexico — recently surged to 2,254 per day, according to a dashboard maintained by the city of El Paso, the most this fall.
El Paso officials have appealed to other cities around the state to help, and groups in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio have all been receiving migrants in temporary shelters — offering people a place to rest and have a meal before they continue on to their final destinations. Cities like Houston and Dallas are often pit stops on a longer journey to other cities across the country.
In Houston, nonprofit Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston has been receiving one daily bus full of about 50 asylum-seekers from El Paso since October.
On Wednesday morning, Alfonso Lopez, associate director of the program, helped process migrants, many of whom had been traveling for days from places like Nicaragua or Colombia. Some migrants sat huddled together, thumbing through their cellphones as they waited to go to the airport. Others waited in line at a breakfast taco station. Many said they were thankful for the time and space to rest.
First: Alfonso Lopez, associate director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston, in Houston on Dec. 21, 2022. Last: Omar Gonzales Vargas, 39, had arrived at the Houston center from Nicaragua with his wife. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune
“It was a very difficult journey,” said Omar Gonzales Vargas, 39, who had arrived from Nicaragua with his wife. “I saw things I never thought I would see — there were a lot of people suffering, going without eating, walking without soles on their shoes.”
El Paso officials recently approached the Catholic Charities to ask it to accept more migrants. But with limited funding and staff, the organization does not currently plan to take on more.
“We’re running out of capacity at the moment,” Lopez said. “We’d definitely welcome others who want to help out with the effort.”
Most migrants who arrive in Houston or other urban centers typically stay only a few hours before catching a flight to reach their final destination. But with the cold weather approaching this week, Catholic Charities said it is prepared to provide hotel accommodations if flights are delayed.
Dallas nonprofit organizations have a similar migrant program in place. A coalition of several faith groups, under the name Dallas Responds, began in 2018 and now receives an average of two buses of migrants per week. Volunteers provide the migrants with shelter and meals until their scheduled departures. In preparation for the lifting of Title 42, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, where the respite center is based, is prepared to increase its capacity and shelter up to 100 asylum-seekers per night.
Similarly, in San Antonio, a temporary migrant shelter, which opened this summer and can accommodate 600 people daily, is preparing for an increase in the near future.
“We are able to manage capacity at the Migrant Resource Center by working with local and border nonprofit and faith-based partners,” the city of San Antonio said in a statement. “If necessary, we ask these organizations to halt transportation to San Antonio for the day.”
Lucy Tompkins works for the Tribune as a housing and homelessness reporting fellow through The New York Times’ Headway Initiative, which is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor.