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El Niño's storms endanger homeless encampments in riverbeds

A challenge in Los Angeles County is how to warn and relocate homeless people who are living in river bottoms in the path of El Nino's potential stormwater.
A challenge in Los Angeles County is how to warn and relocate homeless people who are living in river bottoms in the path of El Nino's potential stormwater.
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Sleeping in a riverbed or a flood control channel can be dangerous. But when you're homeless, a secluded place like a riverbed can become a refuge away from others, and that can be an attractive prospect.

And for those sleeping in those places, the danger of being swept up in a flash flood during a winter storm is a reality, particularly this year with a wet El Niño winter expected. That's why Los Angeles County established The El Niño Homeless Encampment Task Force. Their focus is to go out into homeless encampments in high risk zones and to tell people about the dangers of living in those areas.

Lieutenant Geoff Deedrick, with the Sheriff Department's Community Oriented Policing Bureau, goes out into these riverbeds to talk to the people living there.

"We say, 'How you doing? We want you to know that this storm’s going to be significant. It’s gonna be unique. It’s predicted to be one of the largest since 1997. And you can’t be here. You’re going to die. So you have to leave.'"

Alongside him is usually someone from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). They hand out information about the storm and about shelters with extended hours that the county has opened.

Back in October LAHSA and the Sheriff's Department used a helicopter to map homeless encampments in high risk zones. While they saw about 200 encampments from the air, they estimate the number to be closer to 400, said Naomi Goldman from LAHSA. As a result, at the time, they estimated about 800 people were living in the encampments.

There aren't any updated numbers, but Deedrick says that he feels like it's been working. He's seeing fewer people every time he goes out on patrol.

"We wanted to be proactive and educate and inform everybody," said Deedrick. "Long before this day comes when the water comes."

The L.A. County program was started in mid-summer and brings together services from LAHSA, the Sheriff's department and the Office of Emergency Management. They're focused on five high risk areas which include the Arroyo Seco, the L.A. River, the Rio Hondo, the San Gabriel River and the Tujunga Wash. These are all areas that are likely to flood and have people living in them.