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El Niño battering tent encampments

A tent in South LA caves under the weight of El Niño rains.
A tent in South LA caves under the weight of El Niño rains.
Josie Huang/KPCC
A tent in South LA caves under the weight of El Niño rains.
Yvette "Big Mama" Grant said she'd rather weather El Niño outdoors in her tent than go to a shelter.
Josie Huang/KPCC
A tent in South LA caves under the weight of El Niño rains.
Volunteers with LA on Cloud 9 set up a tent for Carl Franklin, whose tent had collapsed under heavy rains.
Josie Huang/KPCC
A tent in South LA caves under the weight of El Niño rains.
Thomas Johnson got a new tent to replace his old one, which had large tear in it.
Josie Huang/KPCC
A tent in South LA caves under the weight of El Niño rains.
Claudia Perez (l.), a volunteer with LA on Cloud 9, leads a small team in distributing new tents including her boss Dana Beisel and her teenage nieces Jasmine and Valerie Minero.
Josie Huang/KPCC


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Just one day into the reign of El Niño, and Thomas Johnson's tent was already shot.

Water had leaked into a hole in Johnson's tent in South Los Angeles, wetting blankets, clothes and his radio. But he was determined to stay on the streets rather than head for dry land at a shelter.

"There's no privacy at all," Johnson said of shelters. "Disrespectful people and all that kind of stuff."

Those hardest-hit by El Niño are people living on the streets, in parks and in riverbeds. Homeless services workers continue to visit with them, urging them to get out of the rain. But many homeless individuals are choosing to live outdoors because they say it's more comfortable to them than staying in a shelter. Yvette "Big Mama" Grant said she doesn't like waiting in lines, or the 'drama' that comes living cot-to-cot.

"You’re dealing with a lot of people with mental illness, and then people are in your business that you don’t even know," Grant, 47, said. "I just rather do as I do, be as I be, right here. I’m comfortable.”

Homeless outreach workers such as Claudia Perez, a volunteer with the non-profit LA on Cloud 9, are keeping an eye on those staying on sidewalk encampments. She took the afternoon off from her job as a machine operator at Metco to walk through South L.A., giving out about a dozen tents with her boss and two of her nieces. She leaned toward tents that have caved in, or were on the verge of falling down, and called out to their inhabitants.

"How are you? Are you guys wet in there? You guys need tents?" Perez asked, as Cynthia Bernardez peered out of the tent she shares with Johnson.

The group had brought along a dozen donated tents - some new, some gently-worn - that they set up next to damaged ones.

"We’re going to have to move all this that’s already soaked, so we can give you a new tent, OK?" Perez told Bernardez.

City and county officials have been urging homeless people to move to shelters.  The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which operates shelters across the county, has expanded the number of emergency shelters to accommodate increased numbers of people expected to flee the rain. LAHSA also has 60 outreach workers trying to connect homeless people with shelter and services.

"We would like to encourage people to take advantage of the shelter to avoid illness, to avoid hypothermia and all the things that these conditions can bring to an already-vulnerable population," said LAHSA spokeswoman Naomi Goldman.

Some homeless individuals said they do not feel safe in shelters. One woman living in a tent in South Los Angeles who goes by Starletta Nighthawk said she had been sexually assaulted during a shelter stay. Goldman said that each site has security guards and staff trained in handling conflicts that might arise. Deputies with the county sheriff's department also make stops at shelters as part of their shift, Goldman said.

For Grant, her problems with shelters were not so much about safety but the lack of independence she felt living in them. After 18 years of being homeless on and off, she'd rather weather the winter outside, while saving up money to get an apartment.

"This is a new year for me," Grant said.

This story has been updated.