All across Texas this week, temperatures dropped well below freezing during the first widespread cold snap of the winter season.
There were typical concerns about the availability of supplies, road conditions and the power grid. Most of those worries did not materialize, but challenges are different for Texans without a warm, safe place to sleep at night.
For a look at how the extreme cold is affecting those experiencing homelessness, the Standard was joined by Steve Allen, executive director of LifeChange Housing Associates, a nonprofit working with unhoused communities in Irving. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: It’s my understanding you spent the past week living in an inclement weather shelter. What’s the setup like and what services are y’all offering?
Steve Allen: Well, we’re now on on day eight, and, we go in and get them and bring them to the shelter. And once they’re there, they have laundry, they have shower facilities that they can take advantage of. We have three good meals a day and snacks and a place that they can just hang out.
And then we do all sorts of activities. We have all sorts of services, social security jobs, different things like that. Organizations come through during the week, and some fun stuff too.
How do folks find out about the availability of this shelter? How do you get the word out and who’s eligible to come in?
Well, we have a texting platform that we use. And so if you text the word “homeless” to 55498, then you get an update any time the shelter is going to open. That helps probably two thirds of our homeless group. Not everyone has a phone, but surprisingly, most of them do. And so we get the word out that way.
We have a number of nonprofits in downtown Irving and other areas that put our signs out. And then we put signs out in the community saying that the shelter is open.
Well, obviously, for unhoused people, they’re quite vulnerable in extreme weather conditions. And we have a good bit of that here in Texas. What about this most recent cold snap? Was it particularly dangerous or deadly? What about the public health response?
Yes. Well, the public health response has been just outstanding. And, I mean, there’s all sorts of organizations, nonprofits, several cities that will step up – not all, but some.
And then what’s great, honestly, is the general public who will contact us on social media or on other means and say that they found someone and how to get them to the shelter. Plus, we all work together, in Dallas County and Collin County, and that of course helps also.
So was this go around particularly fatal or what were you finding?
We don’t know yet. That slowly kind of comes about and a lot of our homeless, most of them are in camps or in places where there’s somewhat, you know, hiding a storage facility, things like that. And so you don’t see them until possibly days later.
I would imagine, though, that some cities in Texas are better equipped to deal with this, just given their local resources, the number of shelters at volunteers. If you’re someone living on the streets during extreme cold, and you’re not at a shelter, how do you even stay warm at night?
Well, some just use the normal firewood sort of approach. Some will just bundle up and hunker down, if you don’t mind me using a phrase my grandfather used to use. And, like I said, some will find a storage facility – you know, outdoor storage places – and will get into some of those.
We actually had a death a few years ago. Someone was using a propane heater in one of those and died from the fumes.
We have organizations that will go out to a lot of the camps where the folks are refusing to come in from and help them out – try to get them hot food, try to get them firewood. But those are in the larger cities.
The smaller the city, the fewer resources. You know, the further you get away from Austin, from Dallas, from Houston, out into the the countryside and stuff, there are still homeless people. Maybe not the numbers, but they’re still there and the resources aren’t there, unfortunately.
But Steve, you said something earlier that I think troubles a lot of folks. There are a lot of people without homes who don’t take advantage of the shelters, and they may have heard about them, but they decide they don’t want to go even in these extreme conditions. Why is that?
Well, it’s the same thing as the folks that get the warnings for when the hurricanes are coming through that you need to evacuate because it’s going to be dangerous. And they decide, “well, you know, I survived the last big storm that came through. I can ride out this one.”
Sometimes it’s pets. Most shelters don’t allow pets. And, if they have a pet, they’re not going to leave them out there when they go in. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s folks with addictions who don’t want to be away from their high.
And so there’s a lot of reasons. I think stubbornness is a big one.
What can everyday Texans do to help out? I know a lot of folks want to, but don’t know how best to do that.
Well, like I mentioned, there are a lot of great nonprofits, faith communities, churches that are doing so much to help. I know we have seven in Irving here alone.
And what I would just say is some people want to go and do their own thing and raise funds and pass out goods and all that. That’s great, man. They have great hearts. But get involved with the groups that are already doing it so we don’t duplicate services, but also because all of these nonprofits need two things: they need funds and they need people.