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Unusually Cold Winter Takes a Toll on Homeless

The number of homeless people in Texas has declined in recent years. But this unusually cold winter has driven people into shelters across the state.

With its sprawling campus, UT-Austin deals with populations and issues common to urban areas.

At 1 p.m. one afternoon last week, Kevin Chambers was soaking up the sun before returning to an Austin homeless shelter to escape the cold night. Chambers, 37, who has been homeless since his divorce a year ago, doesn’t like sleeping in shelters because crowds of people in an enclosed space trigger his anxiety. But this winter’s bitter cold has left him no other choice, he said.

“I sometimes try to find heater bins in back alleys, but on very cold nights, I eventually end up at the emergency shelter,” said Chambers, who was wearing a cast because a car ran over his leg while he was sleeping outside earlier this month.

The number of homeless people in Texas has declined in recent years. But this unusually cold winter has driven people like Chambers into shelters across the state, taxing the resources of organizations that provide emergency accommodations.

Salvation Army shelters across the state have been full throughout the season, said Philip Burn, communications director for the organization’s Texas division.

“Our most significant challenge this winter was to operate the shelters at full capacity day in and day out because the temperatures have remained extreme over an extended period,” Burn said.

In Austin, there were 37 nights between November and Monday that were frigid enough for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, known as ARCH, to activate emergency cold-weather shelters at the center as well as at local recreation centers and churches. The shelters are activated when temperatures dip below freezing or when temperatures fall to 35 degrees and it’s also windy or rainy.

That’s more than twice as many as the 17 nights the shelters were activated last winter, according to Jessica Burkemper, ARCH's shelter director. The winter before that, there were five such nights.

Below-normal temperatures have been the pattern throughout Texas this winter, said Steve Smart, a meteorologist in Central Texas with the National Weather Service.

"We’ve certainly seen very cold temperatures and icy conditions across the state,” he said. “It has been an unusual year with arctic outbreaks in December, and that trend has continued until recently.” 

In Austin, Burkemper said ARCH has served more people this winter than any winter in about the last five years. The organization works with Capital Metro, which is the regional public transportation provider, the Austin Police Department, local churches and the Salvation Army to ensure that no one sleeps outside, she said.

ARCH has provided shelter to more than 11,700 people this winter in collaboration with churches and recreation centers, compared with fewer than 5,000 last winter, Burkemper said. (A person who stayed in a shelter on two nights was counted as two people; unduplicated numbers were not available.)

The total number of homeless people in Austin has continued a years-long decline — 1,987 people were homeless on a single night in January, down from 2,090 a year earlier. But according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, the cold weather drove more homeless people into shelters that month, a total of 1,539 in January, up from 1,325 last year.

That organization’s volunteers count homeless people, and the information is sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which collects data from across the country on the same January evening. The groups that counted homeless people in Dallas and Houston said this week that January 2014 data from those cities was not yet available.

The most recent federal report, released in November and based on one night in January 2013, showed that nearly 30,000 people were homeless in Texas, a 13 percent decrease since 2012 and a nearly 26 percent decrease since 2007. The number of homeless people has also been declining nationally, which the federal department attributed, in part, to programs that provide housing and services to those with mental illness and substance addiction.

Even so, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition Executive Director Ann Howard said there were too many people sleeping outside on the night of this year’s count.

“It is unconscionable that 448 people in Austin, Travis County, Texas, in 2014 were found outside with temperatures falling to 29 degrees,” Howard said.

She said the main factors driving homelessness include a lack of affordable housing and the rising cost of living, which increases the vulnerability of the working poor and puts a larger segment of the population at risk for homelessness.

“On these cold nights we have men, women and children stuck outside in the streets and in cars because they don’t have housing,” Howard said. “The state of Texas can do better than that. We brag about low unemployment, but we have a lot of people who need help.”

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