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What you can do for your unhoused neighbors during this heat wave (or any time)

A man walks under a tree at Apollo Community Regional Park in Lancaster on Tuesday.
Advocates for homeless people say you can encourage them to seek out shade or cooling centers. Here, a man walks in the shade in Lancaster on Tuesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Everyone suffers when heat waves strike and set new high temperatures. But some communities are more vulnerable than others, and that includes the thousands of unhoused people in Southern California. Thirst, heat stroke and exhaustion pose serious threats to homeless people around the region.

Mayer Dahan, founder of the Dream Builders Project, a nonprofit that assembles and distributes care packages to homeless people, said that now more than ever Angelenos need to “activate” themselves the same way they did in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to the needs of the unhoused community.

Here’s what you can do.

During extreme heat

Mayra Lozano, director of community outreach for WaterDrop LA, a skid row nonprofit, said that above all, people need water.

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WaterDrop LA recently challenged Angelenos on Twitter to take 20 minutes out of their day to hand out chilled water bottles to their unhoused neighbors. Lozano said this is something easy that anyone can do.

Under extreme conditions, excessive sweating can cause serious health problems. Supplemental electrolytes — from a sports drink or other sources — can help prevent heat stroke, said Cat Kim, board director for the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition.

Cooling towels, hats and umbrellas, Kim said, are other things that you can think about giving to an unhoused person. Ice packs from meal-delivery services are also great to give out.

When talking with an unhoused person, encourage them to seek shade or refuge from the sun. You can direct them to public libraries, she said, or cooling centers run by the county. Cooling centers were closed last summer because of the pandemic, but they are back this year. Locations change each year.

Another heat wave is sweeping the Southland, and residents are asked to conserve power during a statewide flex alert. Here’s what you need to know.

At any time

Unhoused people need assistance not just when temperatures are breaking records.

Kim said that food is just as important as water. Soft foods can be best because many people who are homeless lack access to regular dental care. Nutrigrain bars and nonperishable foods high in vitamins and solid carbohydrates are good options.

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Access to fresh fruit is also limited. Bananas provide needed nutrients and vitamins while being easy to transport and store.

Lozano said that WaterDrop LA also focuses on other needs besides water. Basic necessities like socks, body wipes and masks to protect against COVID-19 are always in high demand. Shelter items like a tent or tarp are also needed.

Here are some ideas for reducing power usage and cooling down while California’s flex alert is in effect.

What else you can do

While providing water and electrolytes can help with immediate needs, you can also advocate for long-term solutions for homelessness, Dahan said.

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“While these people really, they do appreciate the supplies, especially if they’re specialized,” he said. “Everybody understands that these are not real resolutions.”

Dahan encouraged Angelenos to “take those next steps” and contact local government officials and advocate for the housing and homelessness crisis to be addressed.

He acknowledged that this issue, like many others, can be overwhelming. But instead of turning away, he said, try to find one cause you’re passionate about within the bigger issue. If you’re passionate about helping single mothers, for example, research and volunteer with local groups that work with that specific population. Same applies to veterans or those with disabilities.

At the end of the day, Lozano said, do what you can.

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“I want folks to know that you can help in any way, and it would be appreciated,” she said. “Folks who are experiencing homelessness, they’re our neighbors, and there’s a sense of responsibility that we should all have to make sure that everyone’s OK.”

Police, outreach workers roust homeless campers in the middle of the night along the boardwalk, which has become a focal point in the L.A. homeless crisis.


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