Homeless people are soaked, but L.A. won’t open winter shelters until December

A man looks into his tent on L.A.'s skid row
John Gunn looks into his tent on skid row after rain and hail soaked his belongings.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Walter Smith was awakened on Wednesday morning by the rain. It poured in from above, through the tattered holes in the tent he had pitched in a downtown park, and seeped through the bottom, soaking his shirt, pants and socks.

“If you don’t wake up before it comes down hard, you gonna wake up soaking wet,” said Smith, a 56-year-old man with a hacking cough who says he has been homeless for three years. He fretted about where he would find more clothing to fit his burly frame — size 13 shoes and size 40 pants. “I cannot find a way to waterproof a tent.”

As storms, hail and chilling temperatures have descended on Los Angeles, tens of thousands of people who bed down on the streets are struggling to stay dry and warm.

The wet and chilly weather comes less than two weeks before the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is scheduled to launch its winter shelter program, which aims to give people more nighttime options as temperatures drop. LAHSA spokesman Ahmad Chapman said that “due to funding constraints, that program does not open until Dec. 1.”

At the Union Rescue Mission on skid row, CEO Andy Bales said the building was packed and lamented that his nonprofit was still awaiting approval from the city to open a new structure in its parking lot to shelter homeless women.

“There’s no way anyone could take this for very long,” Bales said of the cold and wet weather.


Margaret Wiley outside her tent on skid row
Margaret Wiley outside her tent on skid row on Wednesday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

On nearby Crocker Street, John Gunn and Margaret Wiley were reckoning Wednesday with the wet mess in their side-by-side tents. Gunn complained that pooling water had made it into his tent overnight and mused that they needed “tents on stilts.” Wiley had returned to her tent after a burst of hail and found that her new clothes had been drenched.

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“Everything that will keep me warm got soaked,” Wiley said, shivering.

At San Julian Park, Wendell Blassingame had set up a large umbrella and a folding table shielded by a tarp, maintaining his usual post as the “skid row fixer,” helping homeless people however possible. On Tuesday, he said he handed out nearly a thousand pairs of socks. Armed with a small notebook on Wednesday, he was awaiting scores of jackets from someone who had just called him on his flip phone.

“I had only four plastic coats with hoods and by 8 a.m., BAM! I passed them right out,” Blassingame said.

Local activists say they have been flooded with requests for tarps and blankets for homeless people. Jane Nguyen, one of the co-founders of Ktown for All, said she was “appalled” that it had fallen to “a group of unpaid volunteers to meet the basic survival needs of the most vulnerable people,” rather than government agencies.

“We’re scrambling, trying to fill the need,” Nguyen said.

Desire Rimbert moves her belongings under a tent
Desire Rimbert, 27, from Colorado, works to protect her belongings under her tent near skid row on Wednesday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

She warned that the rain would likely lead to more people suffering hypothermia and other ailments. Last year, five homeless people died in L.A. County of causes that included or were complicated by hypothermia, according to the coroner’s office. That’s more than in New York City or San Francisco.

Joanna Swan, who volunteers with the group Street Watch L.A., said she had been gathering plastic left over from wrapping huge works of art at her day job and bringing it to people living on the streets in Chinatown to help protect their belongings.

L.A. residents are not satisfied with the results of the millions of tax dollars spent on homelessness and think it’s time to break with longstanding practices. But even with those reservations, they would be willing to continue or expand funding, a Times poll found.

In extreme weather, “minor issues with your tent become much larger issues,” Swan said.

The rain can be especially perilous for people camping near waterways, such as the Los Angeles River. Chapman, the LAHSA spokesman, said outreach teams had gone out in recent days to areas susceptible to flooding to warn of the upcoming rain and “encourage those individuals to seek a safer location.”

John Gunn leaps over water at his tent in skid row on Wednesday
John Gunn leaps over the water at his tent in skid row on Wednesday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Some city rules are eased during the rain, according to L.A. officials. Alex Comisar, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, says in areas where it is raining, tents are allowed to stay up during the day and city crews only do “spot cleanings” rather than comprehensive cleanups that require people to take down their tents and move.

Members of the Services Not Sweeps coalition, however, complained that cleanups had continued in the days leading up to the rain and that people had lost crucial possessions as a result.

As the rain stopped for a moment on skid row, Taviah Hopkins stood under the overhang of a building, flanked by shopping carts full of her belongings. She was headed to a nearby center to shower, but for a moment the cold seemed to overwhelm her.

“I can’t move,” Hopkins said. “The rain — it throws me off.”