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Opinion

Editorial: L.A.'s homeless and El Niño

L.A.'s homeless and El Niño

Homeless people shelter from the rain under camping tents in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. 

(Richard Vogel / Associated Press)

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.

In all cases, the message is the same — shelter beds are being made available as quickly as possible, and so is transportation to them. Officials of the homeless services agency say that they have opened more than 2,000 new beds in temporary winter shelters across the county in the past few weeks and could have access to an additional 1,200 beds in seven facilities for emergencies as well. On extremely bad weather days — there’s funding for up to 21 of them — the facilities will be able to stay open all day.

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.

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City and county officials expect emergency funds to be available at some point. But they should also encourage nonprofit organizations to open their buildings to homeless people. One Highland Park nonprofit recently found a church willing to put up homeless individuals overnight — but almost lost its chance at funding because the homeless services authority was initially concerned that the pews were too narrow for sleeping. Fortunately, the problems got worked out. Officials should be open to creative emergency sheltering proposals that keep homeless people safe.

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