Before El Niño hits, a scramble to find shelter beds

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With just weeks to go before El Niño strikes California, homeless service providers are rushing to find large vacant spaces to act as overflow shelters for thousands of people who are expected to seek refuge from cold rains.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which serves the city and the county, said it wants to open seven more shelters in the coming weeks. The Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row is also combing the region to set up a satellite shelter.

Andy Bales, who runs the Union Rescue Mission, acknowledged that some of the homeless will not want a bed, and will opt to stay in their cars, or ride out storms in their makeshift shelters. But he fears that thousands more will want protection from the rain storms and will have nowhere to turn.

"They could be washed away, especially those who are near the river or anywhere near a tunnel," Bales said. "They could also very well die of hypothermia."

Year-round, there are enough beds to house about a third of the county's 44,000 homeless people. Government agencies recognize they need to boost the number of available beds. The Los Angeles City Council last week allocated more money to add 440 beds to its annual winter shelter program for a total of 1,300. 

Countywide, the winter shelter bed count is nearly 1,867 and another 215 beds are about to come on line, according to Naomi Goldman, spokeswoman for LAHSA.

The decision comes after the most recent homeless count showed that the population had risen by 12 percent over two years in both the city and the county.

"We know we have this larger homeless population and we have some unpredictable weather patterns coming," said Connie Llanos, spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Garcetti.

But Bales said that the public sector won't be able to come up with enough extra beds on its own. That's why his mission, working with the Alliance to Solve Homelessness in Los Angeles, is trying to find a new future shelter.

Armed with $3 million raised by the mission, Bales said he is eyeing several properties.

"A warehouse could work, an armory, an empty church, a school facility could work," Bales said. "We’re pretty open."

This story has been updated.

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