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Austin isn't always opening emergency weather shelters when it should, city audit finds

Cars drive on Interstate Highway 35 during freezing temperatures on a gloomy day in February 2022.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT News
Temperatures are expected to drop below freezing later this week in Austin.

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Extremely cold weather is on the horizon later this week, and the city has emergency shelters in place to help those who need a warm place to stay.

But last week, the Austin City Auditor's Office found that the city hasn't been opening its emergency shelters when it's supposed to.

The city operates a series of shelters to support unhoused people in instances of extreme heat or severe cold temperatures. They're usually based out of community spaces or nonprofit facilities that have contracts with the city government. The audit found there were four days earlier this year when shelters should have been open during cold weather but weren't. Temperatures had dropped to 30 degrees or lower on those four days.

Between January and March, there were 17 days when the city did open shelters. It hosted a total of 2,469 people and 24 animals.

City Auditor Corrie Stokes said the city has relied on nonprofits to help run cold weather shelters during the pandemic, but those organizations have become less involved as they've returned to in-person programming and projects.

"Nonprofits used to be very involved in this process during the pandemic, and since they haven't really been involved, it leaves it to the city," she said.

With fewer nonprofits able to help facilitate opening shelters, the city's plans to operate the shelters are not up-to-date, staff are not trained and it's become difficult to operate these shelters past one night, Stokes said.

She also said that while these problems are known generally by staff on the ground, departmental directors and elected officials may not be aware.

"They're known at a lower level of staff or they're known out at the recreation centers, but they're not necessarily getting to the people that would be able to fix it," she said.

Usually, it's up to the city's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to make the recommendation to open the shelters, but Austin Public Health has to make the final decision. The audit found that even though the city had clear standards for what temperatures warrant opening the shelters, that didn't always happen.

Temperatures are expected to drop below freezing in Austin at the end of this week. The National Weather Service says it's anticipating single-digit and sub-zero wind chills on Friday morning and a hard freeze on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The emergency management office says it's planning in advance.

"This weekend is unique because we're hitting a holiday," said Sara Henry, a spokesperson for the office.

She said she's worried that if the cold hits hard on Saturday, when government facilities are closed for Christmas Eve, the office may need to rethink its plans for staffing.

"We're going to make adjustments to ensure that those same services are available over the holidays," she said.

Shelters are expected to open once freezing temperatures begin Thursday, but Henry said the office is still determining how many shelters will open and where. That information will be made available at: www.austintexas.gov/alerts.

Laura Morales contributed to this story.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the city did not have clear standards for when to open emergency shelters.

Haya Panjwani is a general assignment reporter, with a focus on Travis County. Got a tip? Email her at hpanjwani@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @hayapanjw.
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