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Austin's struggled to shelter homeless folks in cold weather in the past. This year is different.

In preparation for a winter storm in 2021, Nicky Chavez removes items from her tent before collapsing it and leaving an encampment of people experiencing homelessness in the St. Johns neighborhood of north Austin on Feb. 2, 2021. Volunteers with the Little Petal Alliance homelessness advocacy group organized hotel rooms for unhoused individuals at the camp seeking shelter from cold weather and wind. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Michael Minasi
A sign with information about an overnight cold weather shelter is pictured at a bus stop on Jan. 16.

A record number of people were given shelter from the frigid temperatures last week, according to City of Austin officials. It marks a notable achievement for a city that's struggled over the last few years to get people indoors when extreme weather hits Central Texas.

For decades, Austin relied on a patchwork of nonprofits and faith-based groups to shelter people experiencing homelessness from extreme weather. Then the city took an active hand in the process about five years ago.

The city has stumbled in its coordination of those overnight shelters, but over this last spate of below-freezing temperatures, Austin set up seven shelters and helped nearly 660 people on a single night — a record number for the city.

Greg McCormack with Austin's Homeless Strategy Office used to be a part of that informal shelter system when he headed up the ARCH downtown with the nonprofit Front Steps. Since starting with the HSO, McCormack has been shepherding the program through its infancy.

After communication and coordination issues, the program has been the focus of multiple reviews. City officials pledged to address those, and McCormack said this year’s success is part of an ongoing effort to better engage with homeless services nonprofits — and people experiencing homelessness.

McCormack said the success in sheltering folks this year is the city making good on those promises by having a more cohesive strategy to help homeless service providers and people experiencing homelessness.

"This year, I think, has shown the results of some of those things learned," McCormack said. "The ability to be able [to] stand up shelters within a couple hours of notice, having city staff on-call and ready to come in when the shelters are stood up and being able to activate kind of in an emergency situation like this, as efficiently as we have, has shown some growing points."

All told, the city says it helped 2,267 people over the five days across seven shelters.

Aja Guyton with the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center worked 14-hour days over the last cold snap, coordinating donations and helping people experiencing homelessness get shelter in the sub-freezing temperatures.

She's been with the center, which is headquartered at the Sunrise Community Church off Menchaca Road, for the better part of two years. Guyton agreed this year's sheltering effort was different: There was more buy-in from homeless service providers and better communication and more immediate resources from the city. She said once she was able to rest last Wednesday – and the stress of that five-day marathon wore off – she was able to truly recognize the fruits of that collective labor.

"When it was all over ... it just kind of hit me and literally brought me to tears, because I don't think the community has come together like that before in terms of cold-weather response," Guyton said. "Opening seven shelters ... is miraculous. ... Everything I needed was right there."

But the work done by Guyton and other nonprofits that partner with the city to keep people experiencing homelessness warm isn't over. After winding down the shelters last week, Austin reopened an overnight shelter again on Friday.

Guyton said she was heartened to see so many donations and volunteers across the entire campaign, and she hopes the city comes together again when extreme weather hits Central Texas – even if it means another round of 14-hour workdays.

"This is the most successful activation there's ever been," she said, "so I can't be mad."

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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