Politics

Grand Jury finds LA unprepared to protect homeless during El Niño storms

Bicyclists ride the Arroyo Seco trail on Tuesday morning, May 5, 2015 where several encampments line the riverbed.
Bicyclists ride the Arroyo Seco trail on Tuesday morning, May 5, 2015 where several encampments line the riverbed.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles County is not prepared to protect the homeless population during the El Niño winter season, the Los Angeles Civil Grand Jury said in a report Wednesday. 

“Not enough is being accomplished to alleviate the suffering that is certain to increase among those who lack reliable shelter as a massive El Niño weather pattern approaches,” the report said.

Mainly, the report said, there's not enough emergency shelter space to take in the thousands who live on the streets--leaving them vulnerable to heavy rains, cold, and flooding.

The Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) surveyed the 22 of the largest cities in Los Angeles County and found that emergency winter shelter space does not account for the roughly 29,000 unsheltered homeless who live in tents, cars, sidewalks, and benches, without much protection from the weather. 

The group found the City of Los Angeles, with 17,687 unsheltered homeless, has 2,239 emergency shelter beds this winter.

Inadequate El Nino Planning For County Homeless Population: An Interim Report (IR) by the 2015-2016 Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury
Inadequate El Nino Planning For County Homeless Population: An Interim Report (IR) by the 2015-2016 Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury

“The CGJ believes this situation is unconscionable and grossly inadequate,” the report stated.

Vicki Curry, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said the city's been preparing diligently to meet the coming demand for shelters during the storm. 

"The Mayor will use every tool available to save the lives of our most vulnerable during this El Niño season," said Curry, chief public information officer for the Mayor.

Curry said Garcetti would take recommendations from the report--like finding more temporary shelter space, allowing churches and other groups to receive government funding to take in homeless, and supplying tents and other makeshift shelters--into consideration. 

The County of Los Angeles, prior to the report's release, had already identified seven county gymnasiums that could be used as temporary emergency shelters for up to 1,131 people during bad weather. Officials are calling these facilities "weather activated shelters" that open and close based on weather conditions.

The Board of Supervisors infused the winter shelter program with an additional $1.8 million earlier this year allowing those facilities to open earlier, in October, through March. Capacity at varying shelters in that program has been hovering at 50 to 80 percent each night, said Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority spokesperson Naomi Goldman.

Despite the apparent lack of shelter space, those new emergency beds that the county does have remained largely unoccupied during the first couple heavy rain days of the year, Tuesday and Wednesday. 

In anticipation of the rainstorms this week, four weather-activated shelters opened Monday evening and the other three opened Tuesday, Goldman said, but it's been quiet at those shelters.

“The utilization was extremely low,” said Goldman. “In some of those county shelters, single digits of people.”

On a Reddit forum Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti faced questions about the accessibility of the shelters--users noted that the addresses for the shelters are hard to find and that they discourage walk-ins. 

Goldman, however, said the low turnout at the weather-activated shelters was not for a lack of outreach. She said LAHSA's emergency response teams and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department officers have been talking to homeless people sleeping outdoors and encouraging them to take shuttles from sites around the county to available bed space. 

The weather activated shelters will remain open Thursday and Friday, Goldman said, and then homeless services officials will discuss how the response plan performed during this first El Niño rain storm test of the season.