Hundreds of homeless people packed into cold weather shelters across Los Angeles and Orange counties during the past few rainy nights in Southern California. But most shelters were not at capacity.
“It’s a brand new program and we’ve never been full," said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, which operates Orange County's new emergency weather shelter at the Santa Ana Transit Terminal.
Haynes said the shelter, which can hold up to 300 people, took in about 279 people nightly over this past weekend. The group's been trying to figure out how to attract more homeless during inclement weather. It's been a challenge, he said, but the group's tweaking their approach.
One recent change: allowing homeless to bring their pets indoors with them.
“Especially at Civic Center here in Santa Ana, there are a number of pets that are on the streets and if you couldn't bring your pet in, that would discourage you,” he said. “Now, we've been able to address that, change that, but it takes some time for that word to get out.”
It’s one of the messages Haynes said they are driving home during their outreach efforts on the streets--the numbers have gone up, but it's unclear what the exact impact has been so far.
“We believe it goes miles beyond that in how we are now viewed as a service,” said Kathleen Janson, a board member at Mercy House.
Pets are a topic of discussion for homeless shelter organizers in Los Angeles County, as well.
Naomi Goldman, spokeswoman for the L.A. County Homeless Services Authority, said currently, service animals are always allowed at the shelters, she said, but other animals are generally not.
“We always look to try and find the ability to sort of co-locate their pets even if they’re not allowed to come into the shelter, but we do understand that people don’t want to leave pets or possessions behind," she said.
Goldman said the pet policy is an ongoing topic of discussion in L.A.
"We don’t want those factors to be hinderances to people coming in to the shelters," she said.
L.A.'s 16 winter shelters were at about 70-80 percent capacity during this rain event, though the percentage varied a lot over different shelters.
While shelters in Pacoima, Bell, and Pomona filled to near-capacity, one in Lancaster hovered at 52 percent.
Goldman said they have front line workers who go out every day to connect people with services, but not everyone is at the same place in terms of whether they want to accept help.
Rodolfo Marquez, was among the thousands of homeless who didn't utilize L.A.'s homeless shelters, despite the rain.
Marquez, 59, said he rode out the weekend rains sleeping on a bus bench near San Fernando Road and Cypress Street in Glendale.
There is a winter shelter a few blocks away, but he said in Spanish through a translator that he did not want to go: “I’m ill, I need help, I need somebody to help me.”
He pointed to his swollen hands and feet, but didn’t elaborate.
When asked if health is ever a reason to turn someone away from a shelter in LA, Goldman said no.
"Obviously our job is to encourage people to take advantage of these resources as much as possible. Some people are ready, some people we spend more time building that relationship, building that trust," she said.
Currently, the L.A. County winter shelters are scheduled to close March 31. Orange County shelters are expected to remain open until March 25, though Haynes said Mercy House is in talks with the county to delay that date.
This story has been updated with new numbers from Mercy House on their utilization during the weekend.