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Austin launches new text alert system for people experiencing homelessness

A tent encampment for people experiencing homelessness underneath a US 290 overpass in south Austin, TX on June 2, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The City of Austin launched a new text alert system to communicate with people experiencing homelessness about major weather events, emergencies and other urgent information.

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The City of Austin launched a new text message alert system last week to connect with people who are experiencing homelessness. The system provides people with urgent information, including where to find shelter during cold weather events, on their cell phones.

Communication is one of the six areas the city identified as needing improvement in the aftermath report of the city’s response to the ice storm earlier this year. Access to information is vital during extreme weather events, including flooding and winter storms, and other emergencies, such as wildfire risks and heat advisories.

For people living unhoused, that information is crucial in finding places to shelter and other resources necessary to survive.

“These alerts serve as their first line of defense against the unforgiving forces of nature,” Adrienne Sturrup, director of Austin Public Health, said in a city news release. “When a storm, extreme cold, or sweltering heat strike, a simple text message can mean the opportunity to find shelter, access warming centers, or be aware of life-threatening conditions.”

While text messages help in getting out this crucial information, they don't serve the entire population of people who are experiencing homelessness. Christian Rodriguez, executive director of the nonprofit Trinity Center, said this is a positive effort to improve communication, but it isn't the whole answer.

"It's definitely another mode of communication, and some people will get that information, but there is still a high percentage of people who won't because they don't have access to a cellphone or technology," he said.

The launch of the text alert system came just in time for the heavy rainfall and low temperatures that hit over the weekend. The inaugural alerts were sent to more than 3,500 unhoused residents, according to the press release. More than 5,400 people are considered to be experiencing homelessness in Austin, according to the nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

Additionally, some people might have a cellphone, but it might not always be connected, Rodriguez said.

The city said it plans to expand the service beyond weather and other emergencies, and it hopes to eventually send out info on other services, like pop-up resource clinics.

But first, the priority is to get people enrolled. The city said an education campaign is underway, and outreach teams have QR codes to help people sign up.

Rodriguez said the Trinity Center would help spread the word, but noted there needs to be more ways to communicate with people who are experiencing homelessness. He said bulletin boards at parks and posting flyers at bus stops are other ways to share information about weather and available resources.

"We try to give people the latest on shelters and weather because we know they still have to go back to their spaces, and they should know what to be prepared for," he said. "But we have to find more ways to communicate with people other than texting."

The homeless alert system is intended for a specific and highly vulnerable population with unique needs. The City of Austin encourages all residents — regardless of housing status — to sign up for Warn Central Texas emergency notifications.

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at lmorenolozano@kut.org. Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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