Update: As the freezing rain moved into the Austin area Wednesday, most of the people in the St. Johns camp were moved into motels. Eric Graham and a handful of others stayed behind.
Like a lot of Texans in the year since last February’s catastrophic freeze, Eric Graham bought a generator.
But, unlike millions of Texans with generators, he’s not powering a home on Texas’ anxiety-inducing energy grid. He’s got his own grid. He set it up Tuesday evening, laying out a circuit of yellow and orange extension cords. They snaked their way into neighboring tents at St. Johns Park in North Austin, where nearly 30 Austinites experiencing homelessness on Tuesday were preparing for this week’s hard freeze.
They’re among hundreds of Austinites who likely won’t opt in to the city’s volunteer-based system to shelter people experiencing homelessness on cold nights. People needing a place to stay must register in person at the city’s office building at One Texas Center. Then, they’re shuttled to shelter at one of three sites run by the city.
Austin has retooled its system for sheltering since last year’s freeze, when the city and county were, admittedly, caught flatfooted amid historic statewide blackouts. The city is now offering daytime warming centers, as it did during last year’s winter storm, and the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management department has taken a more active role in coordinating the shelter system.
But it’s a system still facing issues. For one, those shelters can hold only 10% of the overall estimated population of Austinites living on the street. They have 225 beds, while the estimated unsheltered population is 2,500.
That’s fewer than during last year’s freeze, when the city sheltered close to 1,000 Austinites across multiple sites. This year the omicron COVID-19 wave has limited that capacity.
Dianna Grey, the city’s homeless strategy officer, told the Austin City Council on Tuesday the city needs to consider whether the system “reflects where we are as a community with the size of our unsheltered population.” She said the program’s reliance on volunteers has proved problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, the city would run some shelters on city-owned land, while churches would also open up their doors on cold nights. Now, many churches have stopped sheltering because of COVID-19.
In addition, the program doesn’t have dedicated city funding, meaning city staff who run shelter operations are volunteering outside their normal duties.
Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said Tuesday the system needs to be more clear going forward — and it needs to meet people where they are.
“For some people who need a warming shelter, it’s hard for them to physically get around,” she said. “So, I’m just trying to figure out if we can do something in advance that gets people that information in [an] easier, quicker process than requiring them to physically go to a central location.”
The city and county, along with Austin ISD, are retooling the system. Those conversations will likely lead to some change, but not in time for the freeze this week.
And improving the system won’t guarantee people will use it. Many people experiencing homelessness have lost faith in city and county officials. The folks at the St. Johns site, for example, are used to going without the city’s help — and they plan to during this week’s freeze.
Danielle Reichman, who heads up the Little Petal Alliance, has been coordinating efforts to provide aid for the camp at St. Johns. On Tuesday, she determined folks’ needs ahead of the storm: rope, garbage bags, tarps, blankets, lanterns and toilets.
Reichman said many people at this camp are chronically homeless. They’re primarily people of color — mostly Black Austinites. They’re historically underserved, and many don’t really trust the city. They keep to themselves and they’re used to being without power, gas, toilets or running water. Some of them even stayed outside during last year’s historic freeze.
Luke Satterwhite used to live at the St. Johns encampment, but now he’s transitioning into housing. Still, he’s helping folks at the camp, which has 28 tents by his count.
Satterwhite says folks at the camp don’t need the shelters; they don’t want them.
“Everybody makes do right here,” he said.
He’s kind of the ambassador for the camp — a liaison between his neighbors and the city. Tuesday evening he was trying to get a hold of an APD officer who tore down a makeshift warming center under the park’s gazebo during Austin’s last cold snap, hoping he could convince them to let them keep it up over the next couple of days.
In general, he says he wishes folks who work with people experiencing homelessness had more lived experience like him. He says he’s known a lot of folks at the camp for two or three years, and it’s been hard work to try and get people connected with support services.
“Part of being homeless is helping homeless people,” he said as he passed out small padlocks for his former neighbors’ tents, “[even if] you’ve got to help somebody that you really don’t want to help — that doesn’t want your help. You know they don’t want help, but still, you’ve got to offer your help, because you never know.”
After Reichman compiled the list of needs for the camp, Graham finished tending to his generator.
He’s paying it off in installments from his work — odd jobs doing mechanic work, like the $50 he made fixing the brakes on a PT Cruiser Tuesday afternoon.
Graham, who’s from Chicago, says he’s used to cold, but he knows other people aren’t.
His grid could be more efficient, he admits. It’d be easier if the tents were closer together. But, he admits, he’s wary of that. He likes his privacy, others do, too. But, in a storm like the one we’re facing, he says, inevitably, they’ll have to adapt.
“It’s OK out here,” he said. “We’ve just got to learn to come together. That’s the only way we’re going to make it.”