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Grand Jury Report: Los Angeles's Homeless Assistance During El Niño is 'Unconscionable'

If past El Niños are any indication, Los Angeles can expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 inches of rain this year, about twice the average, and the hard rains have begun in earnest this week. That's a bit of a pain for commuters, but for the vulnerable and growing homeless population in LA, it's potentially lethal. The county has a large task on its hands in keeping its homeless residents dry and safe from the dangers of hypothermia, and Los Angeles County's Civil Grand Jury says they're falling down on the job. In a new report, via the LA Times, they call the county's plans to assist the homeless during El Niño storms "unconscionable and grossly inadequate."

The Grand Jury found that nearly 70 percent of LA's 44,000 homeless people are still sleeping outdoors on any given night, and were curious what plans the county had in place to help these 29,000 people without a roof over their heads in such a terrible winter. They sent out questionnaires to city managers and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority asking for details on what assistance they were providing for the homeless during the storm season, and found that current plans would provide shelter for "just a fraction" of people who need it. The report determined that, though they were preventable outcomes, the county's homeless were likely to experience "great suffering" and possible death due to inadequate preparation on the part of cities.

Though the situation is bleak, the report does offer some solutions. In order to take the burden off existing shelters already bursting at the seams, the Grand Jury is recommending that city officials identify buildings that could possibly operate as temporary shelters. They're also calling on governments to ease strict health, fire, and safety codes that might prevent otherwise acceptable spaces from being used as emergency shelters during the winter storms. Recently it came to light that a safety code violation resulted in a homeless shelter in a Highland Park church losing out on $75,000 in city funding when the church pews that were being used as makeshift beds were deemed too narrow. The church did get some last minute funding from Councilmember Jose Huizar, but is still tens of thousands of dollars short of what they need to operate for the remainder of the winter.

Meanwhile, some cities in LA County lack the capacity for housing any homeless people at all—only 13.2 percent of unsheltered homeless in LA County's largest cities will have access to beds. Of the 16 largest cities in the county, six of them can provide no local shelter for their homeless residents this winter. Without local shelters close by, the homeless are faced with two options: suffer through the rains alone or make long and expensive commutes to centralized shelters in unfamiliar neighborhoods like Skid Row. Once there, they're subject to a complete lack of privacy, as well as the dangers inherent in the kind of neighborhood that is able to house something as contentious as a large-scale homeless shelter. Many homeless people choose to stay in familiar locations and wait out the rains.

The Grand Jury report recommends that, "at a minimum," LA County begin stockpiling supplies that can be distributed to those in need. They also believe LA should provide tents, tarps, and ponchos to anyone who is turned away from shelters when they reach capacity as a bare minimum to keep people dry and avoid hypothermia.
· Plans to assist L.A. County homeless during El Niño called 'unconscionable and grossly inadequate' [LA Times]
· A Lot More People Are Homeless in Los Angeles These Days [Curbed LA]
· An Expert Explains: What Exactly Should Los Angeles Expect From This Winter's Brewing El Niño? [Curbed LA]
· Northeast LA's Only Homeless Shelter Loses City Funding Over Dangerous Church Pews [Curbed LA]