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El Niño prompts an outreach effort to get L.A.'s homeless into shelters

Michael Salisbury shook uncontrollably as he waited, soaked to the bone, for the Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch Library in Venice to open at noon Tuesday.

"I could die out here," said Salisbury, 21. "I just need to dry off and charge my phone."

An outreach team from St. Joseph Center, a Venice homeless housing and services agency, took Salisbury in for a warm shower, meal and a night in one of the county's winter shelters. But his plight reflected the state of many of Los Angeles County's 44,000 homeless people Tuesday: The streets were a miserable place to be as El Niño storms made their ferocious debut.

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People clung to steep embankments and under narrow overhangs, or zipped themselves into tents on soupy pavement. Officials were concerned that roughly 600 to 700 homeless people were still camped out Monday in dangerous areas on the Los Angeles River.

At a morning news conference, Mayor Eric Garcetti said one of the storm's immediate risks was that rising waters in the Los Angeles River would engulf homeless people encamped on its banks and islands.

Authorities said outreach workers since July had been visiting encampments in the county's five watersheds — Rio Hondo, Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, Tujunga Wash and the Arroyo Seco — to warn of the dangers. The Los Angeles Fire Department rescued one person from the Tujunga Wash on Tuesday.

But Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Geff Deedrick said his team of homeless outreach workers found only a dozen people in the San Gabriel River bed during reconnaissance Monday and Tuesday. Three people agreed to move to safety, he said.

"It's called compassionate policing," he said.

Naomi Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said homeless shelters in the city and county had a total capacity of 7,245 beds — including 1,131 beds at the seven county-owned facilities that open only when dangerous weather sets in.

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Goldman said all seven of the new county emergency shelters had opened by Monday night, but that they had "very low utilizations" by homeless people seeking to get out of the storms.

"We feel very comfortable in terms of the [shelters'] capacity," Garcetti said. "Part of it is the difficulty of getting people to come in. That's not for lack of workers. People will get those face-to-face visits, and some will be resistant to coming in."

Outreach workers said many homeless people decline to seek shelter because they have pets, want to stay in couples or fear losing their belongings. "The reasons are so varied," said Colleen Murphy, St. Joseph Center division manager.

The St. Joseph outreach team stopped the van to see a homeless woman in her late 70s. The woman, identified as Barbara by outreach workers, was seated barelegged in shorts on a sheet of increasingly wet cardboard in a Venice alley.

The woman lived indoors for eight years in Santa Monica but returned to the Venice streets about a year ago, for reasons unknown.

"That's the $1-billion question," Murphy said. "So many people are tied to this community."

"I know people who don't want to go past Lincoln Boulevard," said Gabriela Solis, St. Joseph outreach case manager.

"They're in their safety zone," Murphy said.

On the other hand, Murphy said outreach workers got a man into housing last year who had spent 30 years in the streets. "Everybody had written him off," Murphy said.

Garcetti said L.A. police officers are prepared to temporarily detain homeless people illegally camped in and near the Los Angeles river who are in danger but refuse to move.

"We're not going to charge them with things," he said. "But we will use the force of law — there is law on the books that they can't be there."

Garcetti's staff later directed questions about the law to the LAPD, which cited a section of the California penal code that allows law enforcement officers to restrict access to perilous areas during disasters.

There is recent precedent for forcible removal of homeless people in rough weather: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday ordered that homeless people be taken to shelters in freezing weather.

Va Lecia Adams Kellum, St. Joseph's executive director, said she and her colleagues hope to use the foul El Niño weather to get people to come in from the cold permanently.

By noon Tuesday, St. Joseph Center was crowded with people waiting for appointments or getting out of the rain. One man picked at a badly dressed foot wound.

"That's how it starts," Murphy said. "The wounds can't get dry, and for those with high acuity, that could be the straw that broke the camel's back."

Two gangly young men with plastic bags billowing around their heads and torsos walked out of the center into the sheeting rain.

gale.holland@latimes.com | Twitter: @geholland

peter.jamison@latimes.com | Twitter: @petejamison

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 06, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Shelter from the storms - Outreach teams work to get L.A.'s homeless off the streets" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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