As El Niño-Fueled Rains Fall, L.A.'s Homeless Turn to Alternate Shelters
About 30 people sought shelter from wet winter storms last week inside the sanctuary at All Souls Episcopal Church in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
On the same day the skies opened up with the first major winter storms of the season, Los Angeles County officials approved another $2 million to help get people off the streets.
Despite the effort, a critical civil grand jury report finds that cities across the L.A. region don’t have nearly enough shelter beds.
You wouldn’t know it if you visited one of the county’s temporary emergency winter shelters during last week’s downpour, says Naomi Goldman of the L.A. County Homeless Services Authority.
"We still have plenty of capacity," says Goldman. "We started the pre-storm outreach back in October, and that is continuing on an ongoing basis to make sure we can get people to come in."
But many homeless people and their advocates say that despite the risks, they often prefer whatever shelter they’ve created for themselves on the street -- under a freeway overpass or along a riverbank -- instead of a city or county-run facility.
"The volume of people there (at city shelters) is so great that people are literally crawling over each other to get whatever's donated," says Reuben Reina.
He's been homeless for about five years. That includes stints couch surfing at friends' homes and most recently living along the Arroyo Seco, a mostly dry streambed that snakes through Pasadena and East Los Angeles.
“There are long lines for everything, you got 600 people you gotta feed every night, tempers are flying,” says Reina. “People are using drugs, and it's filthy.”
Reina says unlike many conventional shelters, people at the East L.A. church shelter can usually stay during the day. They can hang on to their pets, too.
“This place is awesome. There are two people to a pew. We have a responsibly to keep our area clean,” explains Reina.
“If we have animals, we can keep them in a little cage over there.”
Reina nods to the church altar where his 9-month old dog, Moses, is wrapped up in a thick blanket, snoozing beneath an enormous crucifix.
Rebecca Prine, director of the nonprofit Recycled Resources for the Homeless, opened the makeshift shelter with the church’s blessing about a month ago despite opposition from the city and county, who argued the space wasn’t up to code.
“The width of the pews wasn’t wide enough,” says Prine. “Because it’s an older church, wheelchairs are not able to fit through the bathroom. We do not have showers on the premises. So those were concerns they presented to us.”
But with El Niño anxiety mounting, Prine says officials relented.
“I think El Niño was definitely on our side,” says Prine.
“It's better than them sleeping along the Arroyo Seco or the L.A. River, and we were able to demonstrate that because of the lack of shelter in this area, people would continue to stay along the Arroyo, so something had to be done.”
Prine says homeless advocates are calling on other places of worship to open their doors as well.
The Los Angeles County civil grand jury report issued last week calls on cities across the region to modify ordinances that would impede the sheltering of people in certain public structures and relax what it calls restrictive health, fire and other safety standards.
It also recommends the distribution of protective rain gear to those who refuse to come in from the cold -- something that homeless advocates like Marsha Temple of the nonprofit Integrated Recovery Network have been calling for.
“To see if the sheriff could help distribute items such as ponchos, socks and blankets to people on the street,” Temple told L.A. County supervisors last week. “To help people be a little bit drier and be a little safer through this crisis.”
Law enforcement has traditionally discouraged the distribution of tarps and tents in L.A.'s Skid Row and other locations, arguing they provide cover for criminal activity.