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Internal audit reveals poor planning surrounding emergency shelters in Austin

The audit revealed there were four days that the City did not open shelters when they were supposed to.

AUSTIN, Texas — An internal audit report for the City of Austin looked into the City's cold weather shelters and heat emergency cooling centers.

In its findings, the report showed the City's Cold Weather Shelter Operations plan states "the City will open overnight shelters when the temperature is expected to be at or below 35°F with rain or high winds, or anytime the temperature is expected to be at or below 32°F." 

Documents found the City opened shelters on 17 nights during the winter months of January through March 2022 from data provided by the City's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. During that time period, the audit revealed there were four days that the City did not open shelters when they were supposed to. 

During those days, Austin Public Health determined that those days were were considered "close calls" and that a group decision would need to be discussed, but the audit did not reveal the reason behind not opening shelters on those four days.

According to the report, "the plan is supposed to be reviewed and updated annually, but it was last updated in November 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began".

The audit went on to report that the outdated plan relies on "multiple external partners" and, since the pandemic, "these partners have reassessed their commitments to the City's shelter activities."

During the hot summer days, the City had plenty of emergency cooling centers and the City also posted information regarding heat advisories, excessive heat warnings and cooling center information.

However, the Special Operations Plan for Heat Emergencies is also outdated. The last time it was updated was July 2020. According to the audit, "the plan appears to be more reflective of current roles and responsibilities than the Cold Weather Shelter Operations plan, it also assigns duties to the American Red Cross and local non profit organizations that are now being fulfilled by the City, and there is no mention of Austin Public Health's Homeless Strategy Division."

Also mentioned in the audit is staffing struggles for shelters. The document talked about how the City does not have a process to staff shelters adequately. Due to the insufficient staff, Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) facilities are called in to help staff cold weather shelters. These shelters also are not equipped with proper security and trained staff which was also noted in the document.

There are three recommendations listed to help with the cold weather shelter operations issues in the City. Below is the list of recommendations: 

First recommendation: 

  • Assign overall ownership of the shelters
  • Communicate roles and responsibilities of each group involved 
  • Adequately staff shelters
  • Keep track of shelter-related expenses
  • Monitor shelters to make sure they are consistently opened based on weather conditions 

Second recommendation:

  • Define roles and responsibilities for partners involved
  • Have an activation hierarchy

Third recommendation: 

  • Have the City Manager decide which services are provided
  • Have a plan for extenuating circumstances such as power outages or extended stays

You can read the full report here.

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