City Hall

Dallas Residents Defy Winter Storm to Help Neighbors in Need

They are having to balance their concerns for the virus and their concerns for the people in need.
They are having to balance their concerns for the virus and their concerns for the people in need. Jacob Vaughn
As Dallas residents grappled with the cold, they extended a helping hand to their neighbors. Mark Melton, a local attorney, got a call from City Council member Paula Blackmon and Carrie Prysock, the director of the Mayor and City Council Office, saying they needed help sourcing bottled water and food for the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.

On Friday, the city partnered with the local nonprofit ministry OurCalling and prepared the convention center to house the city’s homeless throughout the harsh weather. On Monday, it also opened as warming center to the general public.

Melton stopped by the convention center on Tuesday "just because I wanted to see what it looked like before we just randomly started sending people down there," he said.

When he went to the warming center Tuesday, there were tables and chairs, water and light snacks, but no cots like those provided for the homeless. This didn’t strike him as very comfortable or welcoming, especially to those with families, so Tuesday night, he arranged cots for the warming center.

Melton has gotten pretty good at pooling resources. Since the pandemic, he's been organizing lawyers to help people fight their evictions. However, what are usually pretty simple tasks have been made extremely difficult by the weather and power outages. In one instance, he spent three hours tracking down a pallet of water bottles.

Part of the problem is that many people, including city staff, are snowed in, so everyone is understaffed. That's why city officials asked Melton to help gather volunteers. He put out posts on social media and received an overwhelming response from the community offering to help.

He’s been coordinating with the city to best organize this help. Some of it consists of driving people to the convention center.

In another circumstance, Melton he met an old man who didn’t want to leave his home, despite his power being out. The man was crying, shivering from the cold. Melton tracked down someone to bring heaters and other supplies to the man.

“A lot of these people don’t want to leave their homes because they’re afraid of what’s going to be at the shelters, they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to their house if they leave,” Melton said. “Some of them have pets and there’s not really been any accommodations for pets.”

He said he’s just been trying to provide food and blankets and anything to provide some heat to people in the cold.

The convention center was only supposed to be set up as a heating station until noon Wednesday. But, shortly after 11 a.m., as Melton was still organizing rides to the heating station, he said he doubted it was going to be shut down.

“There’s obviously still a huge need, especially with the power outages. We’ve gotta have places for these people to go,” Melton said. “The convention center is an absolute necessity. We have to keep that open for the time being.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the city announced the warming station would be staying open until further notice.

Other warming stations have been set up across Dallas and North Texas. On social media, users circulated lists of them. Melton drove around to all the supposed shelters and warming stations, but said some of them weren’t open. He said some of this is due to staff not being able to make it in or power outages disrupting the heating station.

“We have a lot of people without transportation, and they’re sitting in their houses freezing to death literally,” Melton said.

He said the city needs more community warming stations so commutes to them can be shorter and safer.
click to enlarge This is a list of local warming stations from the Dallas Police Department. - DALLAS POLICE DEPARTMENT
This is a list of local warming stations from the Dallas Police Department.
Dallas Police Department

Up to a thousand people remain in need at the convention center at any given time, he said, and there are still debates at City Hall and at the county level about putting so many people in shelters in such close proximity during a pandemic. They are balancing their worries about the virus and their concerns for people in need. Deciding which is more important is easy for Melton.

“When your options are ‘Someone can stay under a bridge and freeze to death, almost certainly, or you have some risk of transmission of a virus,’ the freezing to death immediately should take precedence, and we just have to manage those risks the best we can,” Melton said. “We can’t just sit here and let these people die in their houses because we’re afraid to go get them because we might risk transmission. We have a slate of nothing but bad options, so we have to select the least bad option.”

Ever since the convention center became operational last Friday, Raha Assadi has driven around Dallas’ District 2, where she is running for City Council, looking for people experiencing homelessness to bring in.

She said the convention center needs a lot of help giving out food during breakfast, lunch and dinner, so she’s been helping out when she can.

Several apartment complexes in the Cedars have been without power all week, Assadi said. Her campaign is gathering supplies to distribute to people there. On Wednesday and Thursday, Assadi collected items outside the Total Wine at 3810 Congress Ave. in Oak Lawn to later distribute to the people hunkered down in powerless apartment complexes.

“This is an unprecedented time. We’ve never experienced weather like this in Texas,” Assadi said. “If now is not the best time to help people, then when is?”

She encourages people to reach out to their neighbors and make sure they are OK, especially the ones who live alone.

“Assuming everyone is COVID negative and you don’t have any symptoms, ask them to come over because being alone in the dark, it will have long-term effects on your psyche and mental health.”

Michelle Espinal-Embler, a Dallas resident, was able to make it into a hotel after her complex of townhouses lost electricity. Not all of her neighbors were as lucky. When she stopped by to check in on them, she said they were still without power.  Assuming it hadn’t come on while she was gone, she guessed her power has been out for more than 50 hours.

Her crew, consisting of her husband, 9-year-old daughter and two babies who needed diapers, did a supply run for themselves at a nearby Walgreens that was still open.

click to enlarge While they restocked at a nearby pharmacy, Michelle Espinal-Embler's family decided to make these care packages for their neighbors without power. - MICHELLE ESPINAL-EMBLER
While they restocked at a nearby pharmacy, Michelle Espinal-Embler's family decided to make these care packages for their neighbors without power.
Michelle Espinal-Embler
While there, they decided to compile supplies into a few care packages for neighbors. The packages were complete with a pair of fuzzy socks, two bottles of water, two disposable heating pads, two protein drinks and a handful of meal replacement bars.

They went door to door in their neighborhood and handed them out. She said many people seemed like they were doing OK, bundling together under blankets. Others, about 13 people she came across, were stationed in their cars where it was warmer than their homes.

It’s still uncertain when things will be back to normal. Warmer weather is supposed to help in the coming days, but Melton expects plenty of work will still need to be done.

“Just because the snow stops doesn’t mean the temperature rises or the electricity comes back on,” Melton said. “So, we still have the same problem unless it suddenly warms up. We can’t just pretend the problem goes away because the sky is clear.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn