Is Sharpstown Prepared for Worse Winter Weather? Bayland Warming Center Could Be Model for Future

Is Sharpstown Prepared for Worse Winter Weather? Bayland Warming Center Could Be Model for Future
Bayland Community Center in Sharpstown, just before midnight on January 16, 2024

In two dark rooms, around thirty people lay tucked under purple blankets on black cots in Sharpstown’s Bayland Community Center. It was 11:30 PM on January 16, 2024, and temperatures hovered around 25 degrees outside.

Five Harris County Precinct 4 employees sat on chairs and a counter in Bayland’s brightly lit office across the hall: chief of staff Alice Lee, safety and emergency manager Greg Hoffnung, talent director Daniel Rodriguez, recreation director Kathy Perez, and Bayland Park’s groundskeeper Gerald Bell.

They were about to pull an all-nighter (except for Lee, who pulled one the night before).

Winter Storm Heather had hit Houston on Sunday, January 14, bringing back-to-back nights of freezing temps. Houstonians had braced for what some feared would be a repeat of Winter Storm Uri, which knocked out the Texas power grid in 2021.

In response, Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones had opened Bayland (which is operated by the county, not the city) as a warming center starting Sunday. Precinct 4 staff worked in shifts to keep the warming center open 24/7 until the early afternoon of Wednesday, January 17.

If Sharpstown lost power during the storm, Bayland Community Center would have stayed warm. It has a generator that could last for a week, according to Bell.

If not for Bayland, the closest warming centers for Sharpstonians would have been Lakewood Church to the east or Alief Family YMCA to the west—both around 6-10 miles away.

And not all warming centers accepted pets. Bayland did.

On Monday night, the center took in too many people for the thirty cots in the main room, so the team opened another room with twenty more. They also brought two forty-passenger warming buses just in case. But Hoffnung estimated that they had enough rooms to set up fifty more cots if necessary.

Harris County Precinct 4 warming buses outside Bayland Community Center on January 16, 2024

If that wasn't enough, said Hoffnung, they would have reached out to local churches and civic groups asking for space and volunteers.

On the evening of the 16th, roughly thirty people and two dogs were taking shelter in Bayland, said Perez. A family of four with two cats had left earlier after staff helped them pay their power bill and get their electricity back on.

Earlier, the warming center had also had a licensed social worker on site: Najat Elsayed, HCP4's community assistance director. She helped one couple whose car broke down get an Uber ride to a Greyhound station, said Rodriguez.

Hoffnung also said that the county's Holistic Assistance Response Team had dropped off four homeless people at Bayland on Sunday with promises to pick them up on Wednesday.

Precinct 4 was also working with the city, the federal government, and the county Office of Emergency Management, said Hoffnung. "It is...very collaborative."

Lee said that this was the first time the precinct had run a warming center, but they would "absolutely" consider doing it again.

 Close to midnight, two bean-bag tosses and a giant, red "Connect Four" game sat in the quiet hallway. Most people were asleep on their cots, but a man with a salt-and-pepper beard sat on a couch reading a bright red-and-yellow copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

The man, who went by Steve, says he found more than warmth at the center: "This place his been a Godsend, an oasis." He said he had met many people and had "good conversations with older gentlemen" there.

If the Texas power grid hadn't been able to handle Winter Storm Heather, Steve probably would have met many more.