Homeless seek cool refuge in campus areas open to public

Jillian Bliss

Extreme heat conditions have forced Austin’s homeless population to seek refuge in air-conditioned settings across the city, including areas on and around campus.

While UT students and faculty can avoid high temperatures in their air-conditioned offices and classrooms, homeless people do not have the same resources to keep themselves cool during this record heat wave.

Mitchell Gibbs, director of development and communications at Front Steps, a local nonprofit providing resources to the homeless, said finding shade and water sources is a high priority for those without a place to live. He said in addition to homeless shelters, public buildings such as hospitals and libraries are frequented by the homeless because they often provide both.

Perry-Casteñeda Library spokesman Travis Willmann said the library is open to nonstudents, as well as UT students. Willmann said he has noticed an increase in library visitors this summer and feels it could be related to the heat.

“We’re open to the public, so we get people from the local Austin community who may come in off the streets and use our place to relax,” Willmann said. “Anybody can walk into any building on campus, and I think occasionally you have incidents, but there’s nothing of note on a regular basis.”

Kinesiology senior Kassandra Knapp said she visits the PCL approximately once a week and has noticed others at the library who she believed were not students and might be homeless. She said she identified them by tattered clothes and a general “out-of-place” appearance.

Knapp said she never felt frightened by homeless visitors in the library, but feels the issue could possibly become a breach in security someday.

PCL spokesman Travis Willmann said library administration is not aware of any serious incidents occurring because of nonstudent visitors.

John Elford, senior pastor at University United Methodist Church, said the church’s Open Door Ministry aims to provide support to the homeless community living around campus. Elford said the church formerly allowed a small group to sleep in their parking lot, but no longer allows people to rest overnight on their property because the group became larger and potentially destructive.

“I know there’s several volunteers who know these folks really well,” Elford said. “When it gets hot, everybody’s a little touchy. I’ve noticed people have more personal issues in this weather.”

Elford said there may be an increase in attendance at Open Doors worship services because they are held indoors and provide escape from the heat. The ministry currently provides transportation, clothing and meals to displaced workers and the homeless population, he said.

Although University United Methodist no longer provides overnight accommodations, Gibbs said the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless managed by Front Steps provides day and overnight sleeping arrangements. Gibbs said while surviving the heat is a concern for those who live mostly outside, finding meals is not difficult because of the many ministries like Open Doors that reach out to the homeless. He said the facility has also provided approximately 800 bottles of water per day to people in need, and staff members are trained to identify heat-related medical concerns and make necessary hospital arrangements.

“In years past we haven’t had the same ongoing temperatures, but we saw more folks coming in suffering from heat-related illness,” Gibbs said. “This year we’ve only had a couple folks that look like they need medical attention, and I’m sure that’s because we’ve been able to provide water.”