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Why LA shelters were rarely at full capacity this winter

FILE - This Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 file photo shows tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles city and county officials have approved sweeping plans to deal with homelessness at a cost of billions over a decade. The City Council's strategic plan calls for providing more housing and funding programs designed to keep people off the streets in the first place. The city has around 25,000 homeless, more than half the total in LA County. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel,File)
FILE - This Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 file photo shows tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles city and county officials have approved sweeping plans to deal with homelessness at a cost of billions over a decade. The City Council's strategic plan calls for providing more housing and funding programs designed to keep people off the streets in the first place. The city has around 25,000 homeless, more than half the total in LA County. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel,File)
Richard Vogel/AP

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Dozens of emergency shelters popped up in Los Angeles County when El Niño was an expected threat to the homeless community. The city spent an extra $1.7 million on winter shelters because of the impending storm.

But, the torrential rains never came, leaving many emergency shelters underutilized throughout the winter months.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority offered nearly 2,000 shelter beds at its 16 shelter sites in cities like San Pedro, Pasadena and Santa Monica. LAHSA, which is an independent agency created by L.A. city and county, also launched seven "weather-activated" shelters for when El Niño weather spiked, which was not often.

“We took an abundance of caution in being preventative," said Naomi Goldman, a LAHSA spokeswoman.

The agency tracks how many people use the shelters night-to-night. It found that L.A. County shelters were at 90 percent capacity from October 2015 through March of 2016. City-funded shelters were, on average, only 57 percent full.

However, homeless advocates said it's not just the dry weather that prompted many to pass on a shelter bed.

Mel Tillekeratne, director of the Alliance to Solve Homelessness in L.A. and the Monday Night Mission, said the homeless don’t use the shelters because it’s difficult to get to the locations, and they want more privacy. 

"LAHSA only posts pickup locations, and a bus takes the homeless to the shelters," Tillekeratne said. "That's a problem for our community, which often has special mental health needs."

Goldman acknowledged the need to build more trust with the homeless to convince them to use shelters more often. She said the extra El Niño funding allowed them to do more outreach this winter.

“This was part of the city's and county's intense priority focus on serving the homeless and providing them services," she said. "Everyone who came into those shelters was connected to other resources so we can get them the help that they need.”

The winter shelter program ended in March, but LAHSA continues to offer both temporary and longterm housing options at 16 locations around Los Angeles County.