Sometimes Stephen Thomas has time to prepare for the coldest nights of the year.
Other times, he’s working quickly to lay out beds at the Salvation Army in Lewisville and find people who need a place to ride out the cold weather.
“Sometimes it comes upon us really quick, so there’s no planning,” he said. “It’s me racing out with our van and picking up those homeless that I know where they stay at night, a good amount of them, and bringing them on in to the center.”
Thomas is the executive director of the Salvation Army in Denton County, and he’s expecting more cold nights as 2020 begins its run. He’s already opened the Salvation Army’s doors this season, he said.
On the coldest winter nights, he’ll open the center’s doors from 8 p.m. that night to 8 a.m. the next day. The center will provide cots for the 20 people who can fit in the feeding center, the maximum amount of beds the fire marshall deemed safe, Thomas said.
As of Nov. 30, there are about 410 actively homeless households, according to the Denton County Homelessness Data Dashboard provided by United Way of Denton County.
As of the fall of 2018, Lewisville ISD had 672 students experiencing homelessness, according to the dashboard page.
The 2019 Point in Time (PIT) count for Denton County reported finding 194 homeless people on Jan. 24, a reduction from the 255 recorded in 2018. Of those 194, 71 percent were male, and 75 percent were white, according to a report co-authored by the Denton County Homeless Coalition and United Way of Denton County.
The count is an attempt to capture a “snapshot” understanding of homelessness in an area for people both with and without shelter. The count depends on the number of volunteers and the day’s weather, according to the report. Despite the count’s ability to miss people, the Homelessness Research Institute dismisses the idea that the count is inaccurate.
“The PIT counts do miss people, as do most censuses. Nevertheless, PIT counts are important. They are the only measure that captures the scope of people experiencing homelessness who are unsheltered – living on the streets, in cars, in abandoned buildings, and other places not meant for human habitation,” according to a 2014 document from the institute.
Thomas said he opens the center’s doors when temperatures go below freezing.
“Emergency shelters may be activated when the NWS forecasts wind chill values at or below 20 degrees or wintry precipitation with 32 degrees temperatures or lower,” according to a document provided by the Denton County Homeless Coalition.
Thomas said opening at freezing temperatures and below isn’t a hard-fast rule – especially since many of the people who come to the center are over 50 years old and have some health problems. If the wind chill is cold enough, he will open the doors, too.
“Cold is cold, and I don’t want to put anybody at risk,” he said.
He said he hopes to have enough alternative warming shelters to help with overflow. The center will give some people train passes so they can travel to shelters in Dallas or Denton if they need a bed, and the Lewisville Recreation center had cots on standby last year, he said.
“The need keeps growing each winter,” Thomas said.
The Salvation Army in Lewisville is located at 206 West Main St.