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Homeless services go into emergency mode as storm creates deadly street conditions

L.A. County shelters rapidly ramp up capacity to keep people safe from rain, cold, illness

Raul Moridal and Brigido Lopez, who are unhoused, keep out of the rain under a building awning at Tiara Street Park in North Hollywood on Feb. 5, 2024. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Life on the streets of Los Angeles is dangerous at the best of times; add on torrential rains, frigid nights and whipping winds and it can prove deadly.

“It’s not just rain, it’s actually a cold rain and people can die out there it’s that cold, especially the later it gets at night,” said Troy Vaughn, CEO and president of Los Angeles Mission, which operates a shelter in Skid Row.

Fortunately, the city and county network of homeless services providers has jumped into emergency mode, rapidly ramping up shelter capacity to make sure everyone who wants to come inside can access a warm, dry bed. The rainstorm began on Sunday and is not forecasted to taper off until Wednesday.

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) activated its Augmented Winter Shelter Program, which provides motel vouchers to move people inside during storms. The program served 5,402 people last winter.

LAHSA also opened 300 emergency beds at four sites operated by City of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. These pop-up shelters are scheduled to remain in operation through Feb. 8, but may stay open longer if the inclement weather persists.

On Sunday, Downtown Los Angeles smashed its record for most rainfall ever recorded on Feb. 4. with a total of 4.10 inches — significantly more than the previous record of 2.55 inches set on Feb. 4, 1927, according to the National Weather Service. That dealt a heavy blow to the roughly 4,400 homeless in Downtown’s Skid Row.

“Streets are flooded, people’s tents are being damaged, especially the more makeshift tents, those are really not surviving the weather,” said Vaughn.

The Los Angeles Mission has almost doubled its capacity by adding 325 cots on top of its 400 permanent beds. On Sunday night, 237 emergency cots were occupied and Vaughn expects even more to be in use tonight. The Mission is also dispatching outreach teams every hour to distribute dry clothes and blankets and encourage people to come to the shelter.

“Our team has been fully engaged in the process of trying to help people get out of harm’s way,” said Vaughn. “And I’ve been excited to see that people are actually availing themselves of the resources and the services available to to them.”

The nonprofit organization People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) is replicating similar efforts throughout Los Angeles. They have a network of almost 1,400 shelter beds and outreach teams assigned to neighborhoods all over the city.

One challenge both the L.A. Mission and PATH are encountering is the reluctance to come indoors among some people.

This can be for many reasons: a refusal to leave one’s belongings on the street, fear of group shelters or worry that they won’t be able to bring their pet, said Sasha Morozov, L.A. regional director at PATH. While shelters have several layers of security and many accept pets, it is a setting that a lot of people experiencing homelessness have negative associations with, she added.

“Being on the streets is all about survival, so why put yourself in a place you don’t know, where you’re surrounded by people you don’t know?” she said, explaining the mindset of some people living on the streets.

But staying unsheltered during a storm, Morozov explained, opens people up to a host of additional dangers.

For example, cars can swerve into tents, especially in underpasses. In addition, some people living in encampments manage to create makeshift electrical setups by tapping into power lines, and that puts people at risk of electrocution during heavy rains.

“Ultimately, our biggest concern is for people’s health and the risk of hypothermia,”  she said. “If you’re wet, you have such a higher chance of becoming ill and a lot of our folks that are on the streets already have medical conditions due to living outside. The weather can exacerbate that.”

PATH outreach workers are talking to people about the importance of staying dry and keeping their body temperatures up at night, while providing ponchos, hand warmers, beanies and blankets.

The L.A. Mission is also working to convince people to come indoors by opening up an emergency storage center where people can keep their belongings until the storm abates.

The goal is to bring as many people inside as possible and, while they are there, connect them to caseworkers and other supportive services.


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