Houston officials restricted number of homeless people at downtown library, records show

‘We are losing the library,’ then-Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote to the city’s police chief.

By Michael MarksJanuary 11, 2024 2:27 pm,

During the historic heat of last summer, the city of Houston opened cooling centers around town where people could go inside to get a break in the air conditioning.

Houston’s Central Library was designated as the cooling center for downtown. But on June 30, the city removed the Central Library from its list of cooling centers, without an explanation or a replacement.

The Houston Chronicle recently obtained emails that shed more light on what happened. R.A. Schuetz, housing reporter for the Chronicle, spoke to the Texas Standard about the records.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: A lot of people are not thinking about cooling centers right now, but clearly something went on back in the summer. You got your hands on emails that then-Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent this summer about the Central Library. What did those emails say?

R.A. Schuetz: Yes, so it took a while to get the emails. There’s an email exchange that sort of showed the line of reasoning. It started out with the Central Library’s chief: Saima Kadir sent out an email saying that “this week, Central has been inundated with homeless patrons due to the extreme heat in Houston.” She outlined two incidents where altercations took place and said that safety was a concern.

Then Mayor Sylvester Turner responds, talking to the chief of police, saying “Chief [Troy] Finner we are losing the library. I am inclined to closed Central Library as a cooling center and offer another location downtown.” He says he wants additional security and says, “the feeding outside the library must come to an end. If we need an additional ordinance please advise.”

And that was interesting because that actually sort of gave light into another city decision that had happened a few months prior, which was to start ticketing volunteers who for almost two decades had been handing out free meals outside of the library four times a week. They start cracking down on these volunteers and issuing them tickets, saying that there’s another location that if they wanted to move to that other location, which is a police lot by the municipal courthouse, they can – they just don’t want them at this location anymore. So that was another thing that we had been trying to understand the reasoning behind.

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But what about another cooling center? If you take away the library, where do folks go to cool off?

So they did add a cooling center, the Fondé Rec Center; it just wasn’t downtown. And, you know, downtown is where there is a large homeless population. Another interesting thing was just like, you know, in these emails, they list out how many people use each of the cooling centers, and a lot of the cooling centers the previous heat emergency zero people had used; all the ones except for the Central Library, less than 15 people had used.

But the Central Library, both days of the heat emergency, between like 100 and 200 people used it. It just shows that a lot of people were going to the library on these hot days, and they moved it to another location. And, um, have not yet learned how many people have been using that location, but it just goes to show that there is demand downtown where there are a lot of people on the streets.

There’s a brand-new mayor in Houston. Any indication how John Whitmire might approach these issues?

No, he has not responded to any requests for comment. His office says they’re still making decisions on how to move forward.

As someone who covers housing for the Houston Chronicle, what do these emails reveal to you?

They just shed light on reasoning. You know, like the fact that a lot of people were using the library and there were these at least two altercations led to the decision to change their policy around the central library. So namely, it was connected to trying to move the volunteers away and to no longer using it as a cooling center.

I don’t know what conversations were made offline, but it was a decision that impacted a lot of people. And, you know, I do think there is the question – you want people to be safe from altercations; you also want people to be safe from the heat. When I was reporting for the story, I was talking to homeless people who use the library as a cooling center, and this was their suspicion. But a suspicion is very different than seeing something in an email.

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