Organizations are now preparing to protect the homeless during the next winter storm

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In February, when temperatures fell below freezing and snow blanketed the streets, Ken’neal Bellard found emergency shelter in Haven for Hope. He stayed there for three days, waiting for the storm to end and keeping warm with many homeless San Antonians.

This year, Bellard, 56, is hoping to be in Houston if another winter storm hits San Antonio.

But he’s not sure he can do that, which led him to a fair this month hosted by Christian Assistance Ministry, where organizations serving the homeless, including nonprofits and churches, came to provide resources to help those living on the streets of San Antonio prepare for the cold. At the event, Bellard grabbed a sleeping bag and looked for work, while at least 20 cabins were arranged in a semicircle at the back of the ministry building.

Christian Assistance Ministry is one of several organizations – including CityChurch San Antonio, SAMM Ministrities, and Corazon Ministries – that have formed a Winter Shelter Coalition. The goal is to be better prepared to meet the needs of homeless people in extremely cold temperatures.

Dawn White-Fosdick, President of Christian Assistance Ministries, opens a meeting with other outreach workers. The meeting was organized to plan their response to winter weather conditions and how best to help the homeless during freezing temperatures.

Jessica Phelps / San Antonio Express-News

Representatives of the coalition and the city of San Antonio met at the end of November at the Christian Assistance Ministry to discuss this winter.

For over an hour, they exchanged ideas, questions and concerns on how to better communicate with the homeless and provide them with shelter in difficult circumstances.

During the winter storm in February, outreach organizations, first responders and shelters worked tirelessly to find warm places for the homeless, phones ringing constantly, vans picking up people and others handing out supplies. blankets, firewood and coats.

This time around, preparation is key.

“It was a lot back then,” said Valerie Salas, director of homeless services at the Christian Assistance Ministry. During the winter storm, Salas spent every day trying to persuade the homeless to seek shelter. “We learned a lot last year. We want to be better prepared now and make sure there is clear communication between everyone involved. “

Find shelter on an app

Alex Fleming, a pastor at Life Restored Church, was among the first to speak at the November meeting. He showed the group a smartphone app, called the Winter Shelter Coalition, designed to show real-time bed availability at shelters in San Antonio. People can use the app to reserve a spot for someone who needs shelter overnight – an outreach worker can hold a bed for an hour – or a meal.

The goal is to provide something that is easy to use, Fleming said. During the February storm, it was difficult in the chaos to determine which shelters had space as communication between organizations, shelters and emergency responders was difficult.

Pastor Alex Fleming of Life Restored Church speaks to outreach workers as they prepare to better serve homeless San Antonians during the cold winter.  Fleming has developed an app to help outreach groups see in real time which emergency shelters have beds available.

Pastor Alex Fleming of Life Restored Church speaks to outreach workers as they prepare to better serve homeless San Antonians during the cold winter. Fleming has developed an app to help outreach groups see in real time which emergency shelters have beds available.

Jessica Phelps / San Antonio Express-News

The app is in its testing phase and Fleming wants it ready before freezing temperatures hit San Antonio again. One hope is to include day shelters as well, for people who just need a place to warm up in the morning or afternoon.

Day shelters are not as common as overnight shelters in San Antonio, and often finding places for people can be difficult. But in an emergency, churches will open their doors for people to stay.

The group also discussed the availability of hotels for the homeless and free public transport, with a dedicated bus taking people on the streets to shelters. Some were interested in hiring off-duty police officers to keep shelters safe, while others were wary of how homeless people might feel around them.

But there was a consensus that warm options must be available or people could die.

“For us, communication is everything,” Fleming said. “And that can help us do it.”

Pastor Alex Fleming of Life Restored Church has developed an app to help outreach groups see in real time which emergency shelters have beds available.

Pastor Alex Fleming of Life Restored Church has developed an app to help outreach groups see in real time which emergency shelters have beds available.

Jessica Phelps / San Antonio Express-News

Prepare for a vacation lasting several days

City officials have also started to prepare for another winter storm, including how to keep the homeless safe and warm.

Morjoriee White, administrator of homelessness services in the Department of Social Services, said city officials met with faith-based organizations, nonprofits and emergency response teams in November to plan for advance.

“When the weather is bad for a day or two it’s kind of manageable, but when it gets three, four or five days, there are challenges,” White said. “You can’t travel too much because of the road conditions, so people get stuck and run out of supplies. We just want to make sure our partners feel equipped if this happens. “

The city also wants to make sure homeless people are alerted to upcoming severe weather events well in advance, White said. Although outreach service providers have a good knowledge of the city center, the city and its partners should also focus on shelters and hubs throughout the city.

Some homeless people are uncomfortable with shelters and feel unsafe in any of the places San Antonio offers. For these people, homeless care partners go to the camps to distribute blankets, hand warmers and aluminum foil for the tents.

Some churches have relationships with the homeless. So when providing emergency shelter, some homeless people feel comfortable going there instead of using traditional options, White said. It is important to let them know what is available.

The San Antonians can also help. Donations such as socks, jackets and thermal underwear are welcome.

“I always say that to effectively tackle homelessness, the city as a whole cannot do it alone,” White said. “Homelessness is a symptom, not a root cause. Different organizations can help move this needle, especially in an emergency.

Elena Bruess writes for Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. ReportforAmerica.org. [email protected]


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