Among the Angelenos most vulnerable to the ravages of the predicted El Niño storms are the homeless people who sleep outside, especially those camping near dangerous flood zones. Government outreach workers have spent several months combing five riverbed hotspots to talk with many of the 600 to 1,000 people who were estimated to be living there this past fall. The warnings were hard to sell on sunny, 85-degree days, but after repeated visits and after handing out fliers with the locations of winter shelters, officials say that the number of campers may have dropped to fewer than 500.
That outreach to homeless people hunkering down in precarious locations is necessary and should continue. Some people will not leave until it rains hard, so it will fall to outreach workers to work hard in those areas even after the rains begin. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which operates under city and county authority, should also make sure it is reaching out to people taking refuge in places such as libraries and train and bus stations where homeless people congregate during the day; they too will end up on the streets at night, and a cardboard lean-to on a sidewalk will not be protection against a raging storm.
But will it be enough? According to the official homeless count of January 2015, more than 28,000 people in L.A. County are unsheltered. About 18,000 of them are in the city of L.A. Obviously, several thousand shelter beds would accommodate only a fraction of that population. The homeless services agency says it has spent every dollar allocated to emergency sheltering at its disposal. So it will fall to county and city officials to assess whether they need to provide the agency with more. Under normal L.A. weather circumstances, many homeless people are not interested in going to shelters. (Lots of rules, can’t bring your pets, can’t bring all your belongings.) That may change when the weather gets bad.