COVID-19 Precautions Have Left Homeless Austinites With Fewer Places To Escape The Heat

Jul 22, 2020

Ask people camped on Cesar Chavez Street by the Terrazas Branch Library how it’s going, and you won’t be surprised by the answer.

“It’s hot, very hot,” says a man named George, who didn’t want to give his last name.

He’s been living on the streets of Austin for about a year. And since this summer came, staying cool has gotten a lot more difficult. Pools are closed. Many indoor public spaces are shut down or limiting entry. The library used to be an easy spot to cool off, but it’s been closed for months.

“They’ve got H-E-B and all these other places open,” he says. “How come we can’t go into the library anymore … at least give us a chance to get out of the heat?”

The reason is COVID-19. The pandemic means that a lot of informal cooling centers, like libraries, are closed. Sometimes in the summer, the city will leave public buildings open longer or open up extra space to allow people to cool off. Emergency cooling centers have not been opened this year, though, as city officials weigh the dangers of the virus with the dangers of the heat.

“We are identifying the best places to make it work,” said Ashley Hawes, an epidemiologist with Austin Public Health. “Unfortunately, that is taking more time than we expected just because of the nature of the virus and safety for employees as well as for the people coming to visit.”

The city has not seen numbers of heat-related illnesses above what’s considered average this year, according to Hawes. But, if there is a big spike, it could prompt city officials to open emergency cooling locations.

“There's been a few that’ve been identified that we might use more strategically,” Hawes said. “But we also need to make sure [people at the centers] are wearing masks and social distancing.”

George has been living on Austin's streets for about a year.
Credit Mose Buchele / KUT

Local shelters have beds, but there are not enough for everyone. And some people don’t feel safe in those places.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Charlton Schrieber as he sank up to his shoulders in the waters of Lady Bird Lake on a recent scorching afternoon. “You’re not even supposed to swim here.”

Schrieber has been sleeping in a downtown park. He thinks, even without indoor cooling centers, the city could do more for people outside.

“Why can’t we have a snow cone?” he said. “A snow cone really cools you down. And maybe have a picnic for everybody like ‘Ice Day’ or whatever.”

Back at the camp near Cesar Chavez, George says there are other cooling options out there, but some, like riding the bus, cost money.

“You know,” he says, “we find a lot of shade. The trees are our friends. You know, God put trees here for us to keep shade.”

But shade isn’t always enough. August is typically Austin’s hottest month. Meteorologists expect this summer and fall to be hotter than normal.

Got a tip? Email Mose Buchele at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele

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