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As storm pummels region, homeless folks often left to weather cold outside

Frigid temperatures, heavy rain and snow — and even hail — brought by a severe winter storm that will continue into the weekend has forced Southland residents to bunker in their homes.

But not everyone has a home in which to seek shelter.

While forecasters and government agencies have advised residents to avoid the outdoors as the worst of the storm makes its way along the West Coast, for the thousands who are homeless across Southern California — including nearly 70,000 in Los Angeles County alone — the options for shelter are limited.

In Long Beach, for example, about 100 people without shelter camped out under the awning of the Billie Jean King Main Library, in downtown, on Thursday evening, Feb. 23, in an attempt to keep safe.

Tony Johnson, who’s been without permanent shelter on and off for the past 10 years, was among them.

“We just try to stay warm and dry as best we can,” Johnson said on Friday morning.

Several local agencies have increased their outreach efforts this week to ensure those in danger of hypothermia or other health hazards are protected from the cold.

But the region, officials say, lacks the general infrastructure to handle such harsh winter conditions. And the infrastructure that exists is distributed unevenly. San Bernardino and Pasadena, for example, lack winter shelters entirely, while Los Angeles County’s homeless population is so large it’s unlikely near-unlimited resources would be enough to help everyone.

So many of those on the streets have no other recourse than to endure the tempest the best they can.

“There are fewer people experiencing homelessness who die of hypothermia in New York than there are in LA,” said Kimberly Roberts, deputy chief programs officer at the nonprofit LA Family Housing. “We see more health-related incidents as a result of cold and wet weather because we don’t have the shelter system that colder states and communities have actually established.

“We just don’t have that system,” she added in a Friday interview, “and we don’t have those resources available at the same scale.”

Hypothermia — which often occurs by overexposure to cold weather or water — happens when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. If left untreated, the condition can cause heart and respiratory failure, and often results in death.

The medical emergency is a chief concern among unhoused folks, particularly during severe weather events — like the one making its way through Southern California this weekend.

The region’s geography, though, poses another threat to people without shelter:

Flooding.

The Los Angeles foothills, in particular, are prone to flooding and mudslides, Roberts said, and the banks of the LA River — which some unhoused folks camp out on — can overflow, with strong currents able to sweep people away.

“People are often residing in places that flood very easily — but not often, so they may not know the risks of being in a specific area,”  Roberts said. “We’re faced with trying to make sure people are not dealing with the elements that lead to health issues like hypothermia; we’re also trying to make sure that they’re at high enough ground — when the flooding and the water does come  — to be safe.”

LA Family Housing’s outreach teams have worked to connect with folks across the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys over the past week, Roberts said, offering interim housing, transportation to higher ground, emergency winter shelter and other resources.

“For those that were not able to find shelter, or were not interested in shelter, we’re offering them resources to stay as safe as possible and reduce risk,” Roberts said. “We’re offering sleeping bags, tents, tarps, shoes, umbrellas, ponchos, food — anything that we can offer to keep them as dry and as warm as possible in the rain.”

LA Family Housing, alongside multiple other nonprofits throughout the county, work in tandem with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to provide interim shelter.

But as it stands, the agency has just under 300 beds available through its winter shelter program, according to agency spokesperson Ahmad Chapman.

“We have great concern and operate with all due urgency for all of our people experiencing homelessness in LA County,” Chapman said in a Friday interview. “In times like these, with severe storms, our outreach teams work even harder to make sure that as many people as possible can feel every resource we have available, so that folks can be safe and get out of the cold and wet like we’re experiencing this weekend.”

Alongside the traditional winter shelter program, which is seasonal, LAHSA also activated an augmented version of the program, Chapman said. That program gets activated during severe weather conditions.

“The augmented winter shelter program has been reimagined so that we can offer hotel and motel rooms to folks so that they can escape the cold and wetness that we’re experiencing this week,” Chapman said.

LAHSA currently has about 500 vouchers available for hotels and motels, he said.

In Long Beach, which has its own Homeless Services Bureau, officials are also taking advantage of the county’s augmented winter shelter program, according to agency manager Paul Duncan.

The city’s own winter shelter, at the former Community Hospital, is currently at capacity.

Long Beach was set to open a second winter shelter at the Silverado Park gym next week — but that plan is currently being reconsidered entirely after pushback from the community.

But regardless, those beds would come online too late for the current storm.

Outreach staff from the Long Beach Fire and health departments, though, hit the streets on Thursday and Friday to alert people living along the LA River about the potential flooding hazard, Duncan said.

“The goal is to ensure everyone is aware of the impeding weather and any risks and asking people to move from areas that look like they could be more highly prone to flooding,” Duncan said in a Friday email, “and (ensure) that they are aware of resources and have items that can be beneficial in keeping warm through the rain.”

The city will conduct further outreach throughout the weekend, Duncan added.

Members of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, an organization the provides shelter and social services to unhoused folks, spent the bulk of Friday driving around the city in their own outreach van to hand out care packages and lunches — and transport people back to their shelter to stay dry.

Unhoused people seeking shelter at MacArthur Park in Long Beach from the rain on Friday, Feb. 24. (Photo by Christina Merino, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Long Beach Rescue Mission Outreach Coordinator, John Wimberly Sr., passing out a care package at MacArthur Park on Friday, Feb. 24. (Photo by Christina Merino, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Long Beach Rescue Mission Outreach Coordinator, John Wimberly Sr. (right), and Alvaro Moreno, a volunteer for the mission, passing out care packages and lunches at MacArthur Park on Friday, Feb. 24. (Photo by Christina Merino, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Long Beach Rescue Mission was at MacArthur Park on Friday, Feb. 24, for their daily outreach work of serving care packages and lunches to people experiencing homelessness in Long Beach. (Photo by Christina Merino, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Long Beach Rescue Mission Outreach Coordinator, John Wimberly Sr. (left), and Alvaro Moreno, a volunteer for the mission, praying for those seeking shelter at MacArthur Park on Friday, Feb. 24. (Photo by Christina Merino, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Alvaro Moreno, a volunteer at Long Beach Rescue Mission, taking out lunches to pass out lunches to homeless people seeking shelter at MacArthur Park on Friday, Feb. 24. (Photo by Christina Merino, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

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“This is actually our first rainy day since we’ve been doing this program,” John Wimberly Sr., an outreach coordinator at the Rescue Mission, said.

By early afternoon, he’d already taken three people back to the shelter, he said.

Volunteers and staff focused their efforts on MacArthur Park — a popular spot for those who are homeless, on both rainy and sunny days — where a handful of folks without shelter took cover from the storm. Many were bundled up in blankets, some only reaching out a hand to accept a lunch or care package.

“We start out with lunches and care packages, sometimes we have clothes to accommodate certain people,” Wimberly said. “If we don’t have clothes for them now, we’ll come back again after we go back (to the shelter) to stock up.

“We had restocked with a full complement of sweaters and jackets and jeans,” he added, “and we went on location and we pretty much cleared out.”

But so many folks were seeking shelter from the storm, Wimberly said, that the Rescue Mission staff had trouble finding people in the locations they normally frequent.

Pasadena, meanwhile, doesn’t have a winter shelter set up at all — though the city is currently in talks with a site that is expected to serve as its emergency location next winter.

“We wish we had a bad weather shelter but we have not been able to identify an appropriate site over the last, well, since the beginning of the pandemic,” Housing Department Director Bill Huang said Friday.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Pasadena had an emergency shelter operate every winter for the past 30 years.

“In lieu of having a bad weather shelter,” Huang said, “we do have some weather-activated motel vouchers.”

Those are provided by a local nonprofit, Friends In Deed. About 75 people have been moved into motels through that program, Huang said.

Tony Zee, a Pasadena firefighter and member of the city’s homeless outreach team, said his crew have helped about 20 people find shelter from the storm over the past week.

“The hardest part is finding enough hotels,” Zee said Friday.

In the Inland Empire, San Bernardino also doesn’t operate an emergency shelter, according to a Friday email from city spokesperson Jeff Kraus.

Instead, those without shelter must rely on emergency shelters run by local nonprofits.

Operation Grace, for example, is one such facility that assists women and children under 11 years old — but it only has six beds.

And those beds are already occupied by people progressing through a 90-day program geared toward getting them back on their feet.

Still, Operation Grace has been able to link those who are homeless to other shelters and services during the storm.

“This is a really tough winter season,” Executive Director Jessica Alexander said by phone Friday. “We typically see an increase in requests for shelter in the winter months anyway, but this is an especially tough winter, so all nonprofits, including Operation Grace, are seeing an increase in calls for service.”

In Riverside County, storm outreach teams have been engaging unsheltered residents everywhere — offering them places to stay. Transportation to shelters also is being provided as needed.

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The county is coordinating with its in-house Emergency Management Department to expand assistance efforts should concerns worsen, said Housing Department Deputy Director Tanya Torno.

Nonprofits are an immense help with homeless response in Southern California, Roberts said.

But the reliance upon those organizations, she said, has also triggered questions about how the system, as a whole, can function better — including during crises.

“There’s definitely conversations across the community to address the need for a more responsive system,” Roberts said. “But that’s true regardless of the weather.”

It’s times like these, though, when usually temperate California finds itself trapped in a tempest, that homeless folks need a robust support system.

Or they’ll have to survive on their own.

Staff writers Christina Merino, Brittany Murray, and Brian Whitehead contributed to this report.

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