On Sunday, November 18, people gathered under the Tree of Remembrance on Auditorium Shores, as they have for 26 years, to memorialize the 140 people who lived and died in poverty on the streets of Austin. It’s a somber reminder that there are human lives at stake for every day we don’t solve the crisis of homelessness.
Living outside in the elements can take its toll on a person’s health. The lifespan of a chronically homeless person is decades shorter than for a person who lives sheltered. The weather is a culprit as is a person’s generally being unsafe, susceptible to crime and abuse with little to defend him or herself.
What can we do? Give money and support the nonprofit agencies working to end homelessness, one person at a time or by directing policy changes or creating new systems. Volunteer as much as you can for these agencies. Advocate for policies that create more affordable housing, put people in temporary housing to help them regain their health, help them find better jobs so they can afford their rent… so many things.
In the meantime, if you feel compelled to take action right now, interact with people and let them know you care, here are some things you can do:
Ask a person living in homelessness what they need and how you might help. Next time you drive by, you can bring them gloves, medication, a blanket, or another tangible item.
Make sure they know about the Cold Weather Shelter hotline 512-305-4233 to find out when emergency shelters go into effect. Also, look now and know where there a cold-weather shelters in your area, as well as resources for temporary or emergency shelter and transitional housing. The Austin Public Library lists these resources.
Make sure they know to complete a Coordinated Assessment. Completing the assessment in person helps them get into the system and find out what assistance programs they are eligible for. If they have a phone, tell them to call 2-1-1 and ask for a location.
Call 9-1-1 immediately if you think someone is suffering from a medical emergency or showing signs of hypothermia.
The next time you see someone asking for money at a stoplight, give them cash. Pick up an extra burger, taco or hot cup of coffee to give to them.
Build homeless care kits as a family to hand out to people you might see experiencing homelessness. It can include cold-weather gear as well as items like mylar blankets, hot hands, tampons, cough drops, wipes, and other toiletries. You can also purchase a Homeless Care Package on Amazon, which comes with three kits, each including a hat, scarf, gloves, and socks. Purchase it and leave it in your car to hand out next time.
Volunteer at St. Louis Food Pantry on Wednesday, Nov. 21, to help provide a free Thanksgiving meal to hundreds of people in need. Volunteers are needed the night before to prep the meal and the day of to serve, bus, and clean up.
Bring a friend or a small group to help chop and prep food donated by Wheatsville Co-op to the Street Youth Ministry. Food prep takes place on 23rd St. and the food is serve throughout the week to homeless clients.
Help more people stay in their homes by being a bilingual volunteer with BASTA (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action). Volunteers will be interpreting for small groups of tenant leaders to enable their participation in decision-making by and leadership of the tenant association. Volunteers should be fluent in English and one or more of the following languages: Arabic, Burmese, Dari, Farsi, Pashto, Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese. Tenant leader meetings take place on weekday evenings throughout the city – schedules and locations will vary based on our changing needs.
Join the Austin Atheists at their Dec. 2 event to hand out much-needed items to homeless people under I-35 downtown. You can donate to the event and/or volunteer.
Put the annual Thermal Underwear Drive on your calendar – usually on January 1 – to help distribute hats, thermals, gloves, socks, scarves, and other cold weather gear.
Serve lunch to anyone who needs a hot meal in the Caritas community kitchen, Monday – Friday, downtown.
Volunteer for the Point in Time Count in late January. It’s where volunteers fan out across the city in the early hours of the morning to identify as many people living sheltered and unsheltered as they can. This count helps determine the resources we need as a city to address the problem. In January 2018, more than 500 volunteers identified 2,147 people experiencing homelessness.