By any measure, Los Angeles’s homeless population has ballooned to crisis levels. The estimated number of chronically homeless individuals in L.A. has increased 55 percent since 2014, according to a report released late last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Every month, 13,000 people on public assistance in L.A. County fall suddenly into homelessness. The city and county simply cannot keep up.
Clearly, the current situation is unsustainable. But last week’s torrential El Niño storms have brought to light a new and yet more disturbing set of facts: Los Angeles is totally unprepared to help its homeless population deal with emergency weather conditions, even as extreme weather promises to become more common thanks to climate change.
U.S. cities that experience real winters, a time of year that can be life-threatening for homeless people who can’t or won’t find a bed in a shelter, have regulations in place to help them deal with severe or unexpected weather. New York City, for example, has Code Blue, which takes effect on nights that dip below freezing and makes a greater number of shelter beds available, relaxing intake and eligibility procedures for entrance. Cities across the East Coast in the U.S. follow this example.
In contrast, L.A. has no comprehensive policy regarding homeless people’s access to shelter during dangerous weather conditions. Winter temperatures there almost never dip to life-threatening levels, and California is in the middle of a four-year drought. Every year, homeless people throughout the city and county are warned by volunteers and outreach committees of the dangers of sleeping outside during the winter months. But years of mild winters and little rain have made them hard to convince, and when shelters impose strict rules and regulations, many would rather take their chances outdoors, even during an El Niño year.
The danger of the situation became painfully evident last week as rains flooded the L.A. River, washing away homeless people’s encampments and leaving them vulnerable to serious injury and even death.
In the wake of the storms, Los Angeles County’s Civil Grand Jury, a 23-person oversight body whose job is to “ensure that the county is being governed honestly and efficiently,” called the county’s plans to shelter the homeless during extreme weather events “unconscionable and grossly inadequate.”
This year’s El Niño is projected to continue throughout the winter months and into the spring. Heavy storms could continue into February and March. But even beyond this year, Los Angeles and other temperate, coastal cities around the world should all be preparing to live in a world where extreme weather events are routine.