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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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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