An abandoned homeless encampment north of downtown Los Angeles. Christipher Weber / AP

Last week’s torrential storms showed how deeply unprepared Los Angeles is to help its homeless population deal with El Niño—and climate change.

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of Northern Virginia's Crystal City.
    Life

    When Your Neighborhood Gets a Corporate Rebrand

    From National Landing to SoHa, neighborhoods often find themselves renamed by forces outside the community, from big companies to real estate firms.

  2. A photo of a teacher at Animo Westside Charter Middle School in Los Angeles.
    Equity

    Can Opportunity Zone Tax Breaks Be a Boon for Charter Schools?

    The charter school movement is eyeing the tax incentives in the federal Opportunity Zone program to help fund school construction.

  3. Environment

    No, Puerto Rico’s New Climate-Change Law Is Not a ‘Green New Deal’

    Puerto Rico just adopted legislation that commits it to generating all its power from renewable sources. Here’s what separates that from what’s going on in D.C.

  4. Life

    How to Inspire Girls to Become Carpenters and Electricians

    Male-dominated trades like construction, plumbing, and welding can offer job security and decent pay. A camp aims to show girls these careers are for them, too.

  5. People eat and drink coffee inside a small coffeehouse.
    Life

    The Disappearing Old-School Coffeehouses of Kuala Lumpur

    Traditional kopitiams, which serve sweetened coffee in no-frills surroundings, are a part of Malaysian national identity, but their survival is precarious.