"For over six hours, a long line of people in search of shelter stood huddled together waiting for the doors of the George R. Brown convention center to open," local Houston media reported of the chaos that unfolded earlier this week as Texas temperatures plunged to deadly levels.
The homeless in Houston as well as in other states hit by the monstrous winter storm and polar vortex which pummeled up to two-thirds of the nation this week in many cases barely escaped the streets in time to avoid exposure, also as social services and charitable centers themselves struggled to stay properly staffed or even open given the widespread power outages and water infrastructure problems. But a number of homeless also died in circumstances that could have likely been easily averted.
As of Thursday night the death toll nationally from the winter storm which most intensely impacted the unprepared southern states topped 40 killed - some among these were homeless who didn't enter a warming center in time, or even tried to survive inside cars.
As Bloomberg describes, unexpected blizzard-like conditions which rapidly swept most of Texas prompted 'rescue teams' to deploy in search of homeless who hadn't yet entered shelters:
In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and other cities, social workers and volunteers fanned out to search for unhoused people and usher them into emergency warming centers; when community shelters reached capacity, churches and nonprofits opened their doors to those seeking refuge.
However, the report continues, "Not all found shelter: On Monday, a Houston man was found dead in a van after he declined to be taken to a warming center; another man was found dead on a highway median."
Tragically and almost unbelievably, in some cases shelters were "limited" or actually shuttered altogether by preexisting COVID-19 restrictions:
Many said because of COVID-19 there was no room in other shelters and that this was their last hope to find warmth before the temperatures plummet Sunday night.
"They gave out a list, a resource list, I called them and it's the same thing - everybody is not opening due to the COVID-19 restrictions," Houston resident David Barker told KTRK news channel.
A separate report out of Louisiana similarly described the city of Lake Charles "grappling" with "ways of addressing the local homeless problem, made worse by restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic," which had severely limited resources and building space based on 'social distancing' and other precautions. It's believed the pandemic precautions left many more on the streets than normally would have been at a moment the homeless were exposed to freezing temperatures, blizzard conditions, falling ice, and negative wind chills.
"Just too cold to be sleeping out of my vehicle at this time," a homeless man was quoted as saying. A recent Houston initiative to place over 1000 people on the brink of homelessness into permanent housing which kicked off last year likely saved more lives. Yet it's also looking like some warm, immediately usable shelters sat empty or at mere partial capacity ...because "science".
Meanwhile, The New York Times has only very recently discovered the serious danger and potentially calamitous impact of what's known as Covid absolutism:
Covid absolutism is a well-intentioned effort to reduce the spread of a deadly pandemic. In reality, it's making the fight against Covid harder to win.— David Leonhardt (@DLeonhardt) February 12, 2021
But controversially there may be significant resources still going unused across many Texas cities amid the scramble, as Bloomberg underscores:
Yet in Texas and other states struck by uncharacteristically severe winter weather, some of the best tools to address the current crisis are going unused. On Jan. 21, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fully reimburse local and state governments for the costs of moving unhoused people into hotels and motels during the pandemic. Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston have taken the federal government up on the offer, but many cities and counties in Texas have not.
Below: note the 'socially distanced' cots...
It remains though that the broad blackouts impacting millions of Texans had a trickledown effect which impacted the homeless and the ability for cities to tap into this program in one obvious way: motels and hotels across the state were quickly booked full by those fleeing their frigid or waterless homes... assuming the hotels themselves had enough power or staff.
Given these very hotels too are under COVID restrictions, there's little doubt they could have been much better utilized or more available, similar to the apparently (in some cases) locked and shuttered 'Covid restricted' shelters in major cities.