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Austin has continually struggled to coordinate cold weather shelters. This cold snap is no different.

Tents in an encampment of people experiencing homelessness in the St. Johns neighborhood of north Austin on Feb. 2.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Tents are set up in an encampment of people experiencing homelessness in North Austin during cold weather in February. Over the last few years, the city has stumbled communicating when it would activate cold weather shelters. Nonprofits and first responders say they are tired of it.

Pets, plants and pipes have been at the forefront of Austin's messaging ahead of the brutal arctic front that will bring below-freezing temperatures to much of the state of Texas this weekend.

People, critics argue, have taken a backseat — specifically, people experiencing homelessness.

Austin Public Health activated shelters for people living outdoors Thursday, but it came after days of frustration and uncertainty on the part of nonprofits, first responders and City Council members who serve homeless Austinites. The health authority typically waits until the day of to announce shelter openings, but advocates say there needs to be more transparency.

Selena Xie, a medic with Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services and president of the EMS union, said she expected to hear something from city staff earlier this week about shelters opening. As of Tuesday, she hadn’t. She tweeted about her frustration with the city’s reticence that day, arguing the lack of communication makes planning harder for first responders. It was only then that she heard from city staffers.

"People in the city are literally texting me and [asking me], ‘What do you want?’ I’m like, ‘Have I not been clear? Activate the f****** cold weather shelters!’" she said. "How can I be more clear?”

Xie said she wishes the city opened shelters last Sunday, when temperatures dipped below freezing. She knows of at least one patient who was hypothermic after they'd been caught in floodwaters. She thinks that wouldn't have happened if there had been a shelter.

APH argues it didn't call for shelters last Sunday because the forecast from the National Weather Service didn't suggest temperatures would dip below freezing. APH also says it needs to wait to call for shelters until the day of to ensure shelters have staffing so that they don't overpromise and underperform.

The muddied communication in this process isn't new. It's been going on for the better part of three years. The city sheltered roughly 1,000 people over the February 2021 blackout, but it relied heavily on nonprofits to pick up the slack.

Last year, the city slowly began retooling its approach in the wake of that freeze after a report found a "lack of intentional partnering" with nonprofits. The city began getting input from nonprofits last year to rework the system, but just last week, an audit found the system still has gaps and that it hasn't been formally updated since 2019.

Michael Minasi
Alan Richards (pictured in the far left poster) died in January 2022 on a bitterly cold night. His friend Valerie Romness told KUT the city focuses too heavily on people living downtown when it prioritizes overnight shelters during freezing weather.

Valerie Romness runs The Challenger newspaper, which employs homeless Austinites as writers. She said the current system is far better than the previous one, which relied solely on churches and nonprofits to shelter people.

Now, the city stages a registration site at One Texas Center near downtown, and then Capital Metro buses shuttle folks to city recreation centers for shelter.

Still, Romness said, there's a glaring need for more communication and outreach, especially since the city saw its highest death toll of homeless Austinites this year. One of those people was her friend, Alan Richards, who died overnight during a freeze in January.

"He didn't deserve to freeze to death," she said. "I would love to see that there be outreach. ... I would like to see that happen."

Romness added she hopes the city will extend its outreach efforts outside the downtown area. She said the current registration site isn't geographically representative of where homeless Austinites live — that more and more people have fled downtown after Austin reinstated a ban on sleeping outside.

"We've always served people downtown, but as I've seen since the early 90s, we've always pushed homeless people out of downtown," she said. "The more we go by our old [ways], the more we're going to embarrass ourselves. Because I am not going to forget the homeless people who die."

Christian Rodriguez, executive director of the Trinity Center downtown, agrees there have been hiccups over the last few days, but he says, ultimately, the city’s sheltering system has worked in the past. Missteps aside, he says all he and other service providers helping Austin’s homeless population can do over the next few days is let people know where they need to go to get shelter.

“We’ve got to roll with it, and hopefully there will be some changes for the next one," he said.

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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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