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Public health crisis: Helping homeless find shelter from the cold complicated by pandemic

As winter approaches, local groups are trying to find ways to help homeless people find shelter from the cold while slowing the spread of COVID-19.

HOUSTON, Texas — This morning’s temperatures were the coldest of the year, so far, and as we head into the winter months, more freezes can be expected.

Efforts are underway right now to help those who may not have a roof over their heads. But it's more challenging than ever because of the pandemic.

Catherine Villarreal with the Coalition for the Homeless said homelessness is a public health crisis made worse by colder weather. 

She said thousands of people are experiencing homelessness in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties.

“Our 2020 count which we conducted in back in January found about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in the three-county area,” Villarreal said.

Any given year the Coalition For the Homeless along with The Way Home, a collaboration of more than 100 partners, work to end homelessness and prepare for the winter.

“Our shelters, our partners, would expand their capacity and adapt their programs basis to accommodate people experiencing unsheltered homelessness who are looking to come inside for the cold weather," Villareal explained.

She said because of the pandemic, that won’t work this year.

“Well, we’re not able to bring extra people in because we just have to be mindful of social distancing, so it really does make things more complicated this year,” she said.

They’ve opened auxiliary shelters since space is limited.

Emergency warming centers aren’t activated until there’s a hard freeze of temperatures under 25 degrees or more than two consecutive days at 32 degrees or below.

“If somebody chooses not to seek shelter or there just aren’t spots available because of the social distancing with COVID, our outreach teams are out there doing what they can, handing out blankets," Villareal said.

The Community COVID Houston Program aims to provide long-term, permanent housing to the homeless. The $65 million program plans to help 5,000 people in the next two years as a response to coronavirus.

“Because, of course, you can’t stay home and stay safe if you don’t have a home," Villareal said.

If you or someone you know needs help finding a shelter, click here.

RELATED: Tips for protecting your loved ones, including your pets, during winter freeze