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To Help Homeless Cope With Cold, Dallas Shelter Stays Open Day And Night

The frigid temperatures across North Texas have forced those experiencing homelessness to stay inside emergency shelters beyond the norm.

Near downtown Dallas, at the Austin Street Center, residents collect their personal items after enjoying a hot meal and a hot shower.

Sitting on a cot with a pink blanket, Sherry Hamilton, 45, says it’s nice to have a warm bed when temperatures outside are in the teens.

“You can get plenty of water, buy your snacks and sodas, and get you plenty of rest in here,” Hamilton says. “[You] get healed up from being homeless on the street. You don’t have to go out there and freeze and be outside so long freezing.”

Mark Townley is from Pensacola, Fla. Unshaven, and sitting with a science-fiction book in his hand, he says he’s lucky he's not outside.  

“Staying out of that wind,” he says, “that’s a precious gift; staying out of that wind.”

When temperatures go down, demand goes up

When it’s dangerously cold, residents are permitted to stay all day at the Austin Street Center. And each person gets three meals a day. That’s good news for Townley, who says the cold weather has been especially bad for his wife.

“Her knee has been bothering her, and that’s causing some problems.”

Jon Edmonds, executive director of Austin Street Center, says the non-profit helps at least 400 people on most nights. But when it’s freezing, they avoid turning people away.  

“The weather has a big bearing on us and all of our operations,” he says. “Because demand goes up, our expenses go up, particular in cold weather like this.”

Sleeping under bridges just isn’t an option, he adds, so sometimes the center packs in nearly 100 more people.

“Just enough so that the fire marshal won’t come and cite us,” Edmonds said, laughing. “We’ll get as many people in here as we possibly can.”

In demand: long underwear, shoes, cold medication

In bad weather, Edmonds said that individuals often carry everything they own in large bags. That’s challenging.

“How do we store their assets during the cold, and not get overrun with that kind of thing?" Edmonds said. "And how do we give them what they need at the same time?”

In demand are long underwear, shoes, and over-the-counter cold medication. Lois Tyson, an Austin Street resident, says she’s been given a coat, and other items, which is especially needed because she has to take a bus to work.

“Just imagine like you’re going to your car,” Tyson says. “You go out of your warm house, into your car, put on the heat, you’re good. Compared to me, I come out of the shelter, walk out to the bus stop, you know you’re frozen, your face is frozen.”

She continued: “I’m not used to being that cold, but at the same time, you have to do what you gotta do to get where you want to go.”

Later this week, temperatures are expected to warm up. But if another cold spell hits, shelters like Austin Street Center will once again be in need of donations and volunteers to help the homeless.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.