During winter freeze volunteer groups helped homeless Austin residents

The camp under Ben White Boulevard and Manchaca Road had become eerily quiet.

“The power was out and the wind was blowing very, very quickly and very, very badly against the tents,” said Debra Sheffield.

In the early hours of February 15, Sheffield and Andy Kaminsky trudged through brilliantly deep snow and asked the unoccupied Austinites, who consider the underpass to be their home, to move to the nearby Travelodge Hotel. A coalition of non-profit organizations brought together by Rubén Cantu’s Community Resilience Trust ATX had secured a block of space.

Sheffield and Kaminsky are not first responders or city officials. Like so many other Middle Texans, they are ordinary people who answered a phone call to help Austin’s most vulnerable residents through the winter storm.

More:Austin Food Trucks, nonprofits, serve meals and water to residents who have recovered from the freezing in Texas

Kaminsky’s company, Runner City, is a service provider providing grocery deliveries, shopping, and errands. The week before, a trip was carried out to supply the camps with food, blankets and other relief supplies.

Sheffield has used the service for odd jobs and seen Kaminsky’s post. She activated her community network in Round Rock, loaded her Hyundai Sonata with “all kinds of bags of freshly laundered laundry from a group of moms,” and drove to Austin, she said.

She spent February 13-14, distributing supplies and meeting people. When the streets got treacherous and the city huddled under the weight of the worst winter storm in decades, it stayed. She used her car as a warming station and took people in one by one to soothe the bone-chilling cold.

“While they were in the car, I only used it to learn about each person who got in,” she said. She tried to convince the campers, who were concerned that their tents would be stolen or vacated from the city, to go to the hotel.

More:Four Austin councilors are calling for answers to the threat of food shortages

The effort came, of course, to Sheffield, an ex-military woman with a “big huge mother’s heart” who made it her business to “work with people who are in need, trauma and need to get out of bad situations,” she said. At around 3 a.m. on February 15, Kaminsky convinced her to go to the hotel. She stayed a week and worked as a liaison between service groups, hotel employees and people from the camp.

Neighbors come together

It was one of many grassroots efforts to help Austin’s vulnerable citizens during the crisis. Churches around the city were opened as heating centers and food distribution centers. The neighbors came together to offer basic groceries, space heaters and water jugs through Buy Nothing Groups and other Facebook communities. Diversity and Wellness in Action, or DAWA, the nonprofit of rapper and activist Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone, has set up crowd-sourced funds and provided nearly $ 30,000 in direct cash aid to people in times of crisis.

More than 400 people without permanent homes were placed in hotel rooms after volunteers from Austin Mutual Aid and Survive2Thrive began booking rooms to temporarily get people off the streets in freezing temperatures. Getting everyone to shelters would have been more efficient and cheaper, but the city’s shelters filled up so quickly that they couldn’t bring people with them anywhere else, said Austin Mutual Aid founder Bobby Cooper.

“We just wanted to save lives,” he said.

Cooper said he was happy to bring help to these people, but he was also frustrated that the city of Austin hadn’t done more, especially when it came to getting more people without homes out of freezing temperatures.

“Days before the storm got here, they could have taken people from the streets to shelters or hotels,” he said.

More:How you can help, and what to do when you need it, after the historic Texas freeze

Volunteer Coordinator Scotty Love hugs volunteer food organizer Aisha Dull at Lighthouse Cuisine in Austin on Thursday.

“Wake up and go”

At 1:30 p.m. Friday, Scotty Love ran out of sleep, but his mood was high when he stood in the cramped storefront of Lighthouse Kitchen.

The North Austin restaurant and catering business was hastily converted into a primary hot meal source for Austin urban shelters and warmth centers after the winter storm. Since then, it has been “wake up and go,” he said, guessing he had slept seven hours since the crisis began.

Love joined the effort after Kaminsky asked someone to prepare 300 meals for the people he moved from the camps. Love works with the non-profit group Backpack Friends, which provides food for insecure school children. He called his friend Phillip Toney of Lighthouse Cuisine and Kitchen, with whom he had worked on other charitable projects, to prepare an estimated 3,500 meals a day for those in shelters.

Toney resigned his kitchen and worked on the endeavors as head chef. After Love fulfilled the first order, he received a call from Councilor Natasha Harper-Madison asking him to provide 600 more meals.

For several days there were no utilities in the kitchen. A generator in front of the house near a large flower pot in which shriveled hibiscus flowers were hanging on frost-beaten branches supplied the devices with electricity. There was no heat. When volunteers put down a large tank of water on Thursday night, it seemed to put an end to the lack of water in the kitchen, but the pump was frozen.

So on Friday, Love started on his hands and knees, using his mouth to suck water through the tubes into buckets for over an hour so the kitchen could start operating.

“I have blisters on both my lips and my tongue,” he said.

“That looks like the worst”

Austin first responders were also working around the clock – and around the clock – to help people in need. The Austin Fire Department union opened their community hall to serve as a shelter, and the Austin Police Department union serviced the accommodations at Givens Recreation Center.

Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, posted his personal cell phone number on KXAN – probably not the smartest idea, he joked – and kept responding to calls for help along with other volunteer firefighters long after their shifts were over.

“I would look at my lyrics and say, ‘OK, this looks like the worst. Let’s get this person to a shelter or to a relative’s house,'” said Nicks.

He got calls from people who couldn’t get through to 911, he said, including a couple in their 70s who had 2 inches of water on the floor of their apartment after a pipe burst. He sent volunteer firefighters to help this couple out.

“There are so many stories like this,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to be homeless in the city of Austin,” said Whitney, a former outreach minister who lives in one of the camps under a freeway in north Austin, at a news conference held on Saturday by the Community Resilience Trust ATX was organized. Whitney, who did not provide her last name, said she was grateful for the “overwhelming support” from the community.

“Various efforts that have been made by the city to remove us from the camps so that we are not physically visible to the community” have been “traumatic,” she said.

“We are not first responders”

Nonprofit leaders praised the way their nonprofit groups and individuals came together in life-saving efforts to get people off the streets. However, some wondered why the city failed to provide additional resources and housing after the storm.

Austin Mutual Aid’s Cooper said a week prior to the crisis, its customers in warehouses across the city began expressing concerns about the coming storm. He said they knew “better than anyone how dangerous the weather is”.

Cooper said his group tried to get city officials’ attention to open more shelters, but they were “completely messed up” by February 12 when the city’s shelters had less than 400 beds for 2,500 people without Had living space.

“The city dropped the ball on it,” said Cooper.

Volunteers Lizzy Arellano (left) and Charlie Blaine coordinate with driver Laura Morsman before delivering Austin Mutual Aid supplies to a needy downtown Austin resident on Friday.

Because of their close relationship with the camps they visit daily, his team members became first responders when the situation on the ground became critical.

“But of course we are not first responders,” he said.

His group has 50 drivers who worked full-time during the week, he said. On February 14, as the storm subsided, his volunteers in town fanned out to pick up people. Some of them crashed, he said.

“And then they just got another vehicle and went out again,” he said.

None of the Austin Mutual Aid volunteers were seriously injured. Cooper said his group took people to hotels because there were no shelters.

“There was no emergency backup plan,” he said, noting that large city facilities like the Millennium Entertainment Complex didn’t open until much later in the week. “This is how we had to save lives.”

Volunteer Nathan Ryan thanks Iris Martinez for donating items Friday after Ryan delivered water and supplies from Austin Mutual Aid in northwest Austin.

Sareta Davis, chair of the city’s human rights commission, said the Community Resilience Trust gave her a lifeline when she was without power for nearly five days and the temperature in her apartment dropped to 19 or 20 degrees.

“Based on my experience in the community and with confidence, I will make any recommendation to the city council to help them figure out where they can do better and what plans they can implement in the future to avoid the”, said Davis.

Nicks was also frustrated that the city was stretched thin, and he said officials need to look into better ways to direct people and resources before doing this again.

“But the truth is, even if the city were run with perfect efficiency, we in the community would still have had a tremendous need to do what these volunteers are doing,” he said. “I am a firm believer in the government. But when you have a disaster like this, it really comes down to having neighbors helping neighbors. We can’t roll enough fire trucks, cops, and rescue workers to solve all problems right away, if literally a million.” People have problems. ”

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