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Austin provides shelter in freezes, but not in triple-digit heat. Advocates want change.

People experiencing homelessness line up to receive free to-go breakfast at Trinity Center on July 25.
Renee Dominguez
/
KUT
People experiencing homelessness line up to receive a free breakfast at Trinity Center in downtown Austin last month.

Austin's triple-digit temperatures — 42 days in a row as of Friday — have been near-unbearable for people living outdoors. And with the heat streak likely to continue well into next week, a group of nonprofits is asking the city to set up emergency shelter on a more consistent basis.

The group wrote a letter to officials Friday, asking the city to open temporary shelters to get people out of extreme heat. Austin has a program to shelter people in the winter, but not in the summer.

Andi Brauer, outreach coordinator for Central Presbyterian Church downtown, said she understands the city has extended resources to the unhoused community at cooling centers, but operating hours vary and there's confusion about whether people experiencing homelessness are even allowed to use the facilities.

"It's already too little, too late," she said. "This should've started happening in June when the 100-plus temperatures started. ... More and more people are going to show up in emergency rooms. It's going to cost the city more money. It's likely people will die. They'll get sick, for sure, there's no question."

St. David's Episcopal Church and Street Youth Ministry also signed onto the letter.

The city is setting up a 300-bed emergency shelter in Southeast Austin that is expected to be up and running before the end of the month. The Austin City Council also OK'd a plan to lease the site of the former Salvation Army's downtown shelter, which is expected to open by September and house roughly 150 people.

Still, Brauer says, the city should set up a program similar to one it uses in the winter; emergency shelters open when temperatures dip below freezing overnight. That system is currently undergoing a review, however, after issues during February's freeze.

Brauer argues the summer heat poses more of a threat to people experiencing homelessness than cold weather, and summers are only getting hotter.

"If you look at the greater health risk to our community, it's the hot weather," she said. "We need attention to both. I'm not saying that one should shut out the other."

Deaths associated with heat-related illness are more common than deaths during the cold. Last year, the state saw the highest number of heat-related deaths since 1999, according to The Texas Tribune.

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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