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Severe weather, COVID — and lessons learned for helping the homeless

Two tents at a homeless encampment in Dallas.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA
Two tents at a homeless encampment in Dallas. Groups that work with the homeless say they learned how to improve their efforts to help during life-threatening winter storms and the COVID pandemic.

Dallas groups that help the homeless say they learned some important lessons during severe winter storms over the recent years — and the COVID pandemic.

Austin street Center is a traditional homeless shelter, and Our Calling is an inclement weather shelter, both are located in Dallas. The two groups say they learned the importance of working together during severe weather in recent years.

The two shelters teamed together at the end of 2022 to make sure their homeless population was cared for during life-threatening weather.

“Working together is just such a natural fit and we've all come to find is the best solution to attacking homelessness in our city,” said Wayne Walker, the CEO of Our Calling. “It is an epidemic across the nation and across our city, and it is just too large of an issue for any one agency or group to handle alone.

Dallas is using a citywide network that helps coordinate volunteers, communications, and transportation to shelters. Officials involved say they have been preparing, developing, and modifying these protocols and procedures for years.

The city network relies heavily on technology to help.

That includes an emergency broadcast system to communicate with people experiencing homelessness and an app that staff can use to keep track of where the homeless are located.

Partnering agencies and volunteers use donated vehicles to transport the homeless to shelter and drop-off points.

“You can understand how there's no possible way either one of us could have done this by ourselves,” said Teresa Thomas, with the Austin Street Center. "It has nothing to do with how great or mighty a particular agency is. The task is just too large, and you have to collaborate.

Thomas says the Austin Street Center has set up permanent partnerships with mental health care, medical health care and education and employment services to “help get people moving through their shelter system and into permanent housing.”

Both shelters deal with a lot of people. But their staffs still make an effort to show that they personally care about each person.

“We know their names. We know them individually. We care about their comings and goings. And we are here to just change their lives,” Thomas said. “We’re here to see them, hear them and give them hope and make sure that once they leave here that they never come back.

Thomas said that Austin Street Center wants to help the homeless “restore their independence and move on with their lives.”

Our Calling reports that’s it has created over 200 exit strategies for the homeless and in 2022 was able to help at least 15,000 people off the streets and into permanent solutions.

Got a tip? Email Mya Nicholson at mnicholson@kera.org.

Mya Nicholson reports for KERA's government accountability team. She studies broadcast journalism at the University of North Texas.

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Mya Nicholson reports for KERA News as an intern assigned to KERA's government accountability team. She studies broadcast journalism at the University of North Texas.