Homeless Austinites are suffering in this heat. Advocates say we need long-term solutions yesterday.
It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and already blazing hot. People experiencing homelessness line up outside the Trinity Center in downtown Austin for a free breakfast. Volunteers pass out paper bags with juice, water, a pastry, eggs and fruit. Coffee is also available.
The Trinity Center serves breakfast daily and provides other services to help people experiencing homelessness gain stability, like helping them get IDs and birth certificates and access phones and computers. On Mondays, the nonprofit opens its doors only to women, providing them a safe environment to shower and grab food and clothes.
During a recent breakfast distribution, Executive Director Christian Rodriguez said the need has increased since the pandemic and that becomes more apparent in extreme weather.
“We used to only serve about 60 meals on a given day before the pandemic," he said, "and now we serve 90 to 100."
The center has been around for 23 years, providing extra help during all kinds of weather events.
“People know they can come here and they can cool off," he said. "When it iced this past year, we opened our doors because we know there are some folks who don't want to take advantage of some of the city resources.”
When it's really hot, he said, the Trinity Center does its best to open its doors as quickly as possible. And it provides reusable water bottles, sunscreen, cold towels and ice pops.
"We understand that there are some folks who have been camping out all night in 80-, 90-degree weather, and it's even hotter inside a tent," he said. "And so, people are coming to our porch and our door, tired and sweaty.”
The center, in the basement of the St. David’s Episcopal Church, provides services until 1 p.m. After that, people are kind of on their own.
Extra help needed
There are not many places for people who are experiencing homelessness to go overnight when it's this hot. Even after the sun sets, temperatures are still high. The concrete is hot to lie on and tents are humid, leaving people sweating through the night.
When daylight breaks, the temperatures can rise quickly.
People experiencing homelessness say more resources are needed on these 100-degree days.
Daniel and James sleep near the 7-Eleven on Congress and Sixth streets most nights; it's where they can use their food stamps to get food and water.
They return to the Trinity Center most mornings — and not just for breakfast and water, but to volunteer. They help pack breakfasts, among other chores. But when the center closes, they’re on the street again.
“I wish there would be more cooling stations [in Austin] and more ice water," James said. "[The city] does have fountains, but it comes out hot. After five minutes of letting it run, it's still warm.”
Mark Hilbelink, executive director of the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center in South Austin, said the city does an OK job providing shelter during cold weather, but that same response is lacking in the summer.
"They have cooling centers, but essentially cooling centers are just buildings that are already open, like libraries," he said. "We don't really have a strategic and/or funded plan as a community to deal with hot weather, and as the weather gets more extreme each year, I think that's something we really need to look into.”
Austin's chief resiliency officer, Laura Patiño, said she expects the city to release a manual this fall outlining ways to mitigate the effects of extreme heat.
The city also recently opened up misting tents where water bottles are handed out. The homeless office has also been helping distribute water to those experiencing homelessness at camps and other places people gather.
Beyond the heat
Matthew Mollica, executive director for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said as weather events worsen the need for more housing options grows.
“The answer is always, 'Yeah, we need shelter now,' because we’ve not built the permanent housing we need," Mollica said.
Austin and Travis County have been working to open permanent supportive housing for the more than 4,600 people considered to be unhoused in the city. Permanent supportive housing includes access to services like medical and mental health care and workforce training. Homeless advocates say this type of housing is key in helping people stay out of homelessness. But it will take years before this housing becomes available.
“The answer is always, 'Yeah, we need shelter now,' because we’ve not built the permanent housing we need."Matthew Mollica, executive director of ECHO
Mollica said that's where temporary shelter comes in. The city in recent weeks announced plans to open two temporary shelters. More beds were also added to the city’s two bridge shelters, a transitional place to stay while someone waits to get into permanent housing.
Mollica said the extra beds are great to have when it's really hot or cold, but ultimately, people will continue to live on the streets without more permanent solutions.
"If we continue to not build the permanent housing, and provide access to the permanent and affordable housing with services for folks, then we will continue to need to open shelters, which is expensive, and not a solution to ending homelessness." he said.
In the meantime, Rodriguez said the Trinity Center and other organizations will continue to offer services so because someone has to.
“You know, at the end of the day, you give somebody a place where they can feel safe, they can cool off, they can get some relief, it serves all parts of a person," he said. "And so that is what we aim to do every day.”
Moving forward, advocates say, it's up to residents to push city leaders to invest in affordable housing programs so everyone has a safe place to sleep, especially in this heat.