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An ice storm hit the Austin area the week of Jan. 30. Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses lost power as ice-covered trees toppled power lines across the city.

Austin will reevaluate its program to shelter people in extreme weather. Again.

A view of downtown coated in ice.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
The head of Austin's EMS union said it didn't make any sense to have people travel downtown in icy conditions to register for shelter.

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Austin City Council passed a resolution Thursday to better shelter people in extreme weather and potentially expand the program.

The unanimous approval came after a week of criticism from residents and council members of the city's handling of power outages that stretched into a week for tens of thousands of customers. Some of the city's emergency shelters lost power and even turned people away.

Ahead of the vote, Sasha Rose, an organizer with Austin Mutual Aid, told Council the current system is too centralized, relying on a single intake point to transfer people to shelter in cold weather. Rose said she saw people experiencing homelessness denied entry to shelters.

She directly addressed City Manager Spencer Cronk, whose leadership has been called into question over the storm response, saying that she'd not interacted with him, but heard him praise her organization in a news conference Wednesday.

“I have yet to see you at any meetings. I’ve never received a phone call from you. I would say you are falling short of showing up for the community. Austin Mutual Aid cannot continue to fill in the [gaps]," she said. "We need to work together. We need to listen to the folks who actually have the experience."

Frances Acuña, a Dove Springs resident and organizer with Go Austin/Vamos Austin, told Council families were denied shelter at the Dove Springs Rec Center last week, because the shelter prioritized people experiencing homelessness.

"I know that turning families away was not the plan and that it was not the direction given, but it happened," she said.

They should absolutely release the locations of the shelters so they can go there, so that they're not having to travel in dangerous weather.
Selena Xie, head of the Austin-Travis EMS Association

An amendment to the resolution pushed city staff to focus on sheltering families, as well as people experiencing homelessness.

Austin's shelter program has existed, albeit informally, for the better part of 20 years, historically relying on homeless service providers and churches to shelter people in cold weather. In recent years, the city has tried to take the lead on formalizing that program, instituting a temperature threshold to activate shelters, then requiring people to travel to the city's office building at Barton Springs Road and First Street before being shuttled to shelters.

But the program has struggled to maintain a cohesive communication strategy with partners or with people in need of shelter. After hundreds went unsheltered in the 2021 freeze, the city said it would develop a better strategy. A freeze early last year highlighted gaps in the system, as did another just before the year's end.

During last week's freeze, Selena Xie, the head of the Austin-Travis EMS Association, told KUT she'd rather see the intake process decentralized, especially in icy conditions when roadways aren't safe.

"Having one point to congregate from 6 to 8 p.m. downtown does not make any sense," she said. "They should absolutely release the locations of the shelters so they can go there, so that they're not having to travel in dangerous weather."

District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes echoed that concern ahead of the vote, saying the city needs to have a "coordinated effort."

"We have constantly seen and heard ... that registration continues to be a barrier for folks," she said. "I still don't understand why we're asking for folks to get downtown to register only then to be bused out to different shelters. I have seen other cities handle it differently. I think we should be handling it differently."

The resolution was amended to also suggest banning scheduled encampment clearings before and after shelters open, expanding the operating hours of shelters and standing up a shelter in Del Valle. City staff are expected to report back to Council by mid-June.

Members also passed another item to evaluate the city’s response to last week’s storm: an audit of Austin Energy that focuses on vegetation management around power lines.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Austin Mutual Aid moved 450 people into motels over last week's freeze.

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 aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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