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More than eight months into the pandemic, area homeless shelters report fewer beds and volunteers due to social distancing protocols. But their clientele remains in need, so their staff have come up with new solutions, from using QR codes for donations to Thanksgiving sack meals.
With everyone being advised to limit interactions this Thanksgiving, Austonia takes a look at how Austin's shelters are coping with COVID.
Fewer shelter beds and volunteers
Jason Whaley, communication manager for Austin's Salvation Army, said the pandemic has made their shelter space scarce.
"We had to reduce our overall shelter capacity just based off CDC guidelines," he said. "You know, we've made beds, separated them into over six feet apart."
But the changes have been effective.
"Now fortunately we have not had to deal with a COVID outbreak at any of our shelters so that's a very good thing, and I believe that the protocols had a lot to do with that," he said.
That said, implementing safety procedures has cut down the number of badly needed volunteers.
"It certainly reduces the amount of volunteers we can actually have in the warehouse so we are most certainly cutting back in terms of just the amount of people for safety reasons," Whaley said, adding that this year those iconic red Salvation Army donation kettles will include QR codes, "so the people don't actually have to touch cash or touch the kettles."
A move from downtown
Monte Osburn, the executive director of The Foundation for the Homeless, said the pandemic has affected every aspect of his organization but especially its Feed My People program, which serves free breakfast every Tuesday and Thursday in downtown Austin.
"We would serve somewhere between four and six hundred per breakfast before COVID, and now it's down to maybe a hundred, 150, just because the population experiencing homelessness and needing that breakfast have kind of moved away from downtown into some other areas," he said.
Elaborating on the importance of the socializing aspect of the Feed My People program, Osburn said: "One of the draws for our clients to come in to have these breakfasts, it's not so much of the food, which is one type of sustenance, but they miss that connection with someone that they can speak to and just sit for a while and have a conversation with somebody rather than just surviving."
Volunteering at the foundation has been curbed significantly as well, as at other local organizations. But Osburn stressed that there are other ways to help beyond volunteering, including donating money and items such as masks and travel-sized personal hygiene products.
Another option: "Just becoming more knowledgeable about the issue," she said.
Amy Price, of Austin's Front Steps, said that another way to help the local homeless population is to donate a blanket through the organization's annual winter drive.
"Every year as winter arrives, there is a steady demand for blankets," she said. "We distribute blankets to shelter clients, individuals (who are) unsheltered and living in camps and outside places, and through the other nonprofits who work with people experiencing homelessness."
The goal this year is to get 1,300 blankets, and as Price explains, "We really need specific blankets, because the size and what the blankets are made of matters so much."
After taking some time to talk to clients and staff, Front Steps learned which blankets worked best and what blankets did not work at all.
"Wool blankets are a no-go, because most people living rough have skin damage and the wool is terribly irritating to wind- (and) sun-burned skin. Cotton blankets are a no-go because they soak up moisture from dew, rain (and) sleet and they become too heavy to carry and there is no way to dry them. Small blankets don't keep out the wind and cold," she said. "Our clients are adult men, and they know those small fleeces won't keep them warm." The blankets to donate to Front Steps should be twin- or full-sized.
Antwon R. Martin, of the SAFE Alliance, an organization which offers shelter and housing as well as counseling for at risk individuals, says the pandemic has increased the number of people seeking shelter from abuse. "There are more people coming to SAFE for support, but the amount of shelter space we have, as always, is extremely limited," says Martin.
Due to the pandemic, volunteers are down and even basic fundraising has become a problem for the organization.
"Because of COVID-19, we couldn't hold our big fundraising events in person this year," Martin said. "Our annual gala raises more than $1 million each year, but we had to convert it to a digital event, which raised about $620,000. So we're doing everything we can to provide a high level of support to survivors of violence and abuse while finding ways to offset the decrease in donations."
The pandemic, with its shelter-in-place strictures, has made it particularly difficult for individuals who are risking abuse by simply staying at home.
"For many, home isn't a safe place," says Martin. "When someone is isolating inside a home with a partner or caregiver who uses abuse, the chance to reach out for support may never happen."
Alan Graham, the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, is used to organizing a big Thanksgiving meal in downtown Austin, but this year things will be different.
"We're doing it outside, and we'll end up making some simple sack meals that people can come and pick up and take away," he said. "So the intimacy of what we do has got to be postponed for this year and hopefully we'll be back next year."
For Graham, whose organization not only brings out food to people daily but also runs Community First Village in far East Austin, the communal aspect is key to his work.
"Our belief in what homelessness is is not that you're without a house," he said. "We believe that housing is important, we believe housing is necessary but it is still insufficient as far as what the human person needs. And we have a saying at Mobile Loaves & Fishes that housing will never solve homelessness but community will."
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Summertime sure does fly by, doesn't it? It's time to jam-pack as many summer activities as you can while there is still about a month left before school starts up again and the grind gets going. Luckily, Austin is full of places to visit that will fill your season full of memories.
To get you started, check out some of these seasonably-fit museums, galleries and snacks.
Beyond Van Gogh, 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd.
Like the name suggests, Beyond Van Gogh Austin takes visitors deeper into the Dutch painter's work by surrounding them in his post-impressionist world. Aptly taking place at the Starry Night Pavilion at the Circuit of the Americas, this immersive exhibit allows Vincent Van Gogh's masterpieces to be "freed from frames" as they are projected onto the walls and floors for guests to explore. Van Gogh's thoughts, dreams and words are set to a symphonic score to drive the narrative as you walk through the rooms, giving visitors insight into the tortured artist's swirly world. Adult tickets start at $46.99, children at $28.99 and it offers student and military discounts while the museum runs through Sept. 5.
Museum of Ice Cream, 11506 Century Oaks Terrace
The runaway hit from New York City has made its way to Austin, complete with a rainbow sprinkle pool, banana forest and bright-pink-everything exterior. The Museum of Ice Cream is a favorite of major celebrities—Beyoncé, Ryan Reynolds and the Kardashian Krew have all been spotted at the New York Location. The whimsical museum promises an undisclosed "Texas twist" at its new Austin location, which also has an on-brand café that serves Museum of Ice Cream original treats. You didn't think you'd leave without ice cream, did you? Tickets run $39 per person.
The Selfie Galleries, 3220 Amy Donovan Plaza
Looking for a place to get that perfect summer selfie? Look no further, because the newly-opened Selfie Galleries has 20 wildly decorated different rooms to roam through, capturing an unforgettable photo of yourself and your faves in each one. The backdrops were made so you can flex your creative muscle and make some documented memories at the same time. The gallery also hosts mixers for all age groups so you can meet local Austinites in a safe setting. Tickets start at $20 for an hour, $40 for two, depending on how many people you bring along.
Wonderspaces, 1205 Sheldon Cove
The self-proclaimed "new home for extraordinary art," Wonderspaces is an interactive art gallery like you've never experienced before. With rotating exhibits that you can touch, Instagram and ogle, the artwork is designed for everyone to create their own unique experience when visiting. Virtual reality, a house of mirrors, anonymous conversations and a dragon made of teabags are just a few of the wild installations that make this museum what it is—plus, you can enjoy some local brews at the Wonderspaces Bar. Adults can visit for $24, kids for $15 or you can get an annual pass for $99 and visit each new piece.
Milk Bar Bakery, delivery only
Maybe you want an experience without the outing. Thanks to ghost kitchens, the brainchild of Christina Tosi came all the way from The Big Apple to the Lone Star State. The well-celebrated Milk Bar Bakery is now available in Austin through third-party delivery only, meaning you can get the full line of milk bar cookies, bar pie, truffle crumb cakes and its famous layered birthday cakes through UberEats, GrubHub, DoorDash and Postmates only. If you haven't had these rich cookies yet, it's time to fire up that delivery app and get to ordering!
Soak up the rest of summer while you can!
- 1 1/12 oz sweet pepper-infused Tito's Handmade Vodka
- 3 oz soda water
- 1 oz grapefruit juice
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- 1/4 oz simple syrup
The Biden administration is asking cities and states to use pandemic relief funds to pay residents $100 to get vaccinated. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reaffirmed prohibitions on pandemic protocols in a new executive order issued on Thursday.
The order emphasizes that "the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates," according to a press release. It outlaws government entities from requiring employees to be vaccinated or individuals to provide proof of vaccination and upholds previous orders restricting government entities' ability to impose pandemic protocols.
Local public health and elected officials have asked all Austinites to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and unvaccinated individuals to avoid nonessential trips last week given the rising number of local confirmed cases and related hospitalizations in recent weeks. But it is not enforceable under Abbott's order.
The seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions in the five-county Austin metro has more than quintupled since the beginning of July and is now 47.4. The threshold for Stage 5 is 50, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines.
Despite these trends, Abbott stands firm in his commitment to avoid new statewide mandates and to prohibit local government entities from issuing any of their own.
"Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19," he said in a statement. "They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses and engage in leisure activities."
Public health officials have attributed the current spike to the more contagious Delta variant and unmitigated spread among unvaccinated individuals. Abbott encouraged Texans to get vaccinated if they haven't already but affirmed that it would never be required by the state in his statement.
An increasing number of Austin-area employers—including Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health, Facebook and the Department of Veterans Affairs—have announced new vaccine requirements in recent days. Austin Mayor Steve Adler asked the city manager to enact a similar requirement on Wednesday, but the city is unable to do so due to an executive order issued by Abbott in April.
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