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Austin hasn't yet finalized plans to better shelter people in cold weather

An ambulance drives on Oltorf Street in the Travis Heights neighborhood of south Austin during a winter storm on Feb. 16, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
An ambulance drives on Oltorf Street in South Austin during February's winter storm.

Local leaders say they’re working on a better plan for cold weather shelters as winter arrives in Austin. The shelters historically have been reserved for Austinites experiencing homelessness, but became crucial for people who lost power in February's storm.

The temporary shelters have been around for the better part of 20 years. There’s a protocol: If the weather is forecast to dip below freezing overnight, people are told to meet at a pickup spot to get shuttled to shelters for an overnight stay.

Dianna Gray, the city’s homeless strategy officer, told KUT last month that the system was overwhelmed during the February freeze.

“We learned a lot about where we needed to improve in the storm. It was obviously a painful experience for all Austinites, but particularly dire for people who are unsheltered." she said. "And while we have historically had a cold weather sheltering plan in this community, it was not adequate for an event of the seriousness of [Winter Storm] Uri.”

A task force's wide-ranging report on Austin's response to the storm highlighted the need for local officials to better shelter Austinites of all stripes, particularly people with disabilities and seniors.

The report suggested the city and Travis County better coordinate with local organizations that can more quickly provide shelter. Groups like Community Resiliency Trust, Austin Mutual Aid and Survive 2 Thrive found shelter for scores of Austinites during the freeze.

A follow-up report from the city's independent auditor released last month found a similar need for cohesion.

"The lack of intentional partnering with community organizations and reaching vulnerable populations affected the City’s ability to effectively reach and serve all residents, including people experiencing homelessness, seniors, renters, people with medical needs, and other vulnerable populations," the audit read.

The city and county are both working on a plan to staff up facilities, salt roads and make sure power is available at designated shelter sites in the event of another freeze.

Earlier this month, the city's office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management hosted a roundtable on how to best improve the sheltering system and respond to a potential freeze. That discussion is ongoing as Austin and Travis County finalize plans.

This week, Austin Public Health released a revamped plan that includes COVID testing and provides separate shelters for people who test positive.

It's likely that new plan could be put to the test overnight on Sunday, when the National Weather Service expects temperatures to dip below freezing overnight.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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