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Texas homeless population seeks refuge amid bone-chilling temperatures

"Everyone is struggling right now, especially those who are sleeping outside," said one Dallas-based pastor.
Image: A homeless camp under a bridge in Austin Texas
A homeless camp under a bridge on I-35 in Austin, Texas, this week. Montinique Monroe / Getty Images

As bone-chilling temperatures have left thousands of people across Texas stuck indoors without power and heat, advocates for the homeless have taken to the streets to find those unable to take or find refuge.

Mary O'Connor, a volunteer with the nonprofit organization OurCalling in Dallas, said she has driven through snow and ice looking for homeless people in need of shelter.

"We've convinced many to come in with us," O'Connor said. "We're letting them know that their lives are worth it, and we want to get them to safety because it's dangerously cold outside."

Many Texans face fallout from the massive winter storm, like widespread power outages, transportation problems and food shortages; homeless people are among the state's most vulnerable population even in good weather, but they have become particularly vulnerable as the deep freeze persists, according to advocates.

In 2020, around 27,000 individuals experienced homelessness on a single night in Texas, which is a 5 percent jump from the year prior, according to the Texas Homeless Network's annual report. In the state, 37 percent of people experiencing homelessness are Black, despite making up 13 percent of the total population.

Emergency shelters and warming centers have been set up at churches, event centers and other locations across the state to ensure people without housing have a place to escape the extreme weather.The safe havens are housing and feeding thousands.

Image: Couple sit amongst belongings as they embrace to keep warm in Galveston, Texas
Couple Renne Alva, 37, and Travis Wasicek, 43, sit amongst their belongings along Seawall Boulevard as they embrace to keep each other warm after record-breaking winter temperatures in Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 18, 2021. The couple said they became homeless last year after losing their jobs due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus global pandemic.Adrees Latif / Reuters

Wayne Walker, a pastor and the CEO of OurCalling, said that more than 800 people are sheltered at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas and that the number of people increases each day.

"Everyone is struggling right now, especially those who are sleeping outside," said Walker. "We've got an unlimited need and limited resources, so it's a challenge just to keep up."

While Covid-19 has complicated relief efforts, Walker said his organization implemented safety measures, including on-site rapid testing, social distancing, mask requirements and cleaning crews.

"We are doing everything we can to keep people safe and healthy," he added.

Chad West, a member of the Dallas City Council whose district is near the Hutchison center, said he is concerned about the homeless community, but applauded the response effort in Dallas.

“There's more snow than I've ever seen here before," he said. "It’s a little scary and these people need our help."

In Austin, with record low temperatures, officials said 1,000 people are at shelters across the city, including the Palmer Event Center.

Deborah Torrey Fisher, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Solid Ground Ministry, said a church in South Austin allowed her to house around 40 people with 15 volunteers working around the clock.

"At first, we thought we would make it an overnight shelter just for a few nights, but when the storm came in, we knew everyone had to stay here until it was over — we couldn't send them back out there to die or lose limbs," Fisher said.

While hunkering down at the church — and with Covid-19 screenings and CDC guidelines in place — Fisher said the “family-like” group feels safe from the dual crises of the pandemic and winter storm. Despite getting support from locals, the organization is consistently running out of necessities like groceries and water.

"It's a pretty horrific and heavy situation in Austin," Fisher said. "We are out there shoveling snow and then boiling it so we can have clean water for toilets, cleaning and cooking."

Nearby, Mark Hilbelink, director of the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center, said his team transported dozens from homeless camps to shelters, while providing additional supplies and food for those in need, which he called "challenging."

"Resources for homeless folks are already diminished because of Covid-19, and this storm just took it to a whole other level," he added.

According to Hilbelink, the center has already distributed about 80 percent of its stockpile, including blankets, sleeping bags and gloves, but said the center was determined to continue collecting and buying more necessities.

"I am proud to see all of these small and often faith-based organizations step up and do the hard work when it's the most difficult job to be done," Hilbelink said.