Discover more from HEATED
Hilary took L.A.'s unhoused by surprise
In interviews with HEATED, mutual aid groups said Los Angeles failed to warn its most vulnerable residents about the record-breaking storm.
For many people across Los Angeles, Hilary wasn’t as bad as it could have been. If you had shelter, you could hunker down and wait out the storm.
But for Charles, who lives in a tent in an encampment near East Hollywood, the record-breaking rain brought major challenges.
The 61-year-old said water came through the bottom of his tent, soaking his belongings and clothes. “I got sick just before the rain started, so I wasn't able to prepare,” he told me over the phone.
Charles was one of more than 70,000 unhoused people living on the streets of Los Angeles County during the storm. They are the most vulnerable to climate disasters, and Sunday’s storms were no exception.
HEATED’s climate accountability journalism is 100 percent independent, supported entirely by readers. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Nearly 5 inches of rain fell in 24 hours in parts of the city, according to the National Weather Service, putting pressure on those who live outdoors. Though there were no deaths reported from the storm, volunteers told HEATED that when they went to check on people in encampments on Monday, they found people in wet clothes, with soaked open wounds, and with tents and belongings swept away.
“There's always this perception that if people are falling into houselessness, it’s because they use substances,” said Ndindi Kitonga, co-founder of Palms Unhoused Mutual Aid. “It actually just comes down to people cannot afford rent, or they are one crisis away from being homeless.”
Though the city of Los Angeles claims to be working hard to address its houselessness crisis, organizations that work with the unhoused say the city has not figured out how to adequately respond to extreme weather, creating a feedback loop where houseless residents fall deeper into crisis with every storm.
These cracks in the system were exposed by Hilary, they say—and must be filled before climate change causes them to widen any further.
People didn’t know Hilary was coming
In the days leading up to Hilary, organizers said few of the unhoused people they serve even knew extreme rainfall was coming.
“There's really no universal warning system for the unhoused,” said Andreina Kniss, an organizer with the volunteer group Ktown for All.
Kniss said volunteers reached out to hundreds of people in Koreatown, the L.A. neighborhood with the densest population of unhoused people besides Skid Row, and only one person knew about the storm.
But even if people had heard about Hilary, there was no climate context for understanding its severity. “This is obviously something very new for Southern California,” said Allison Duda, a volunteer with LA Street Care. “So a lot of people just really aren't aware of what the implications of that could be.”
On Sunday, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass assured viewers on CBS News’ Face the Nation that the city was reaching out to the unhoused. The mayor’s office did not return HEATED’s request to learn how many people were contacted or in what manner.
L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna also said on Friday that responders “have already made outreach to the homeless population.” In a phone call with HEATED on Monday, Captain Geoffrey Deedrick, head of the sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, said the department had warned a total of 153 people camping in or near the San Gabriel River, the Rio Hondo, and parts of the L.A. River.
The Los Angeles Police Department also did not respond to HEATED’s requests to learn how many people were contacted. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) told HEATED that he doesn’t know. But LAHSA did tell LAist that the agency has no written emergency plan to help the unhoused people they serve.
Shelters were few and far between
Even if all of L.A.’s unhoused population were warned about the storm, they would have also needed shelter: one of the most basic, essential needs during a climate emergency.
During her appearance on Face the Nation, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass promoted the fact that the city had emergency shelters open. But organizers and unhoused people told HEATED shelters were not accessible or widely available. They also said the mayor’s office didn’t share shelter information until Sunday, when the storm was already underway.
Organizers also pointed to a video spreading on social media, where an unhoused woman named Ruth calls 211. The operator tells her that the city has no shelters available for single adults.
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
Charles, who weathered the storm in his tent, said he tried to call 211 twice about shelters. The first time, none of the information they sent to his phone came through because service was unreliable. The second time, 211 directed him to a website with the wrong information because Charles didn’t know his encampment’s zip code.
“I don’t get no mail sent here,” he said.
Calling 211 or accessing a website also requires a cell phone, which not all unhoused people have. That’s in part due to frequent “sweeps'' by the LAPD, in which police forcibly remove encampments, often throwing away people’s belongings in the process—including their phones. This can make it more difficult to communicate with people ahead of a climate event, organizers said.
“I just think it's really bizarre that you would direct unhoused people to a website to locate a shelter,” said Kris Rehl, a volunteer with LA Street Care who does outreach in Charles’ encampment. “That seems like a really counterintuitive system.”
A small response to a massive problem
Not everyone criticized the city’s response to Hilary.
“I can't say enough good things about the mayoral administration,” said Rowan Vansleve, president of Hope the Mission, an organization that runs several shelters with around 2,500 beds. “I've never seen them bring everyone together like this before.”
Vansleve said Hope the Mission made 300 emergency beds available. And according to Deedrick, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department did use in-person methods to direct 80 unhoused people to motels.
That count rose to 85 by Monday, according to LAHSA. A total of 374 individuals and 140 families were also placed in emergency shelters.
Still, Vansleve noted, the number of beds ultimately made available by the city and county are dwarfed by the size of L.A.’s unhoused population. Organizers also said beds are often unsuitable for disabled people or the elderly, and can’t always accommodate people’s belongings.
“The bigger issue is there's not enough shelter beds to begin with,” said Vansleve. “So it's not that the response to the crisis was incorrect. It's that we're in the middle of a climate crisis, 365 days a year.”
Mutual aid groups: we need more help
Los Angeles has been taking steps to improve its response to climate-fueled extreme weather. In June 2022, Los Angeles was one of the first cities in the U.S. to appoint a heat officer to coordinate the city’s response to extreme heat, which includes opening cooling centers across the city.
But those cooling centers have the same problems as the emergency shelters—people don’t know they exist, there’s not enough of them, they are hard to get to.
An inadequate government response may primarily affect people on the streets today, organizers said, but that won’t always be the case. “The climate crisis is coming for everyone,” said Kitonga. “But the people at the front lines are those who are unsheltered and unhoused.”
In the meantime, mutual aid groups are doing their best to fill in the gaps. But they’re not a coordinated emergency response. And, they say, they’re tired.
“We're happy to do this work; it’s important to the communities that we support,” said Duda. “But it would be really nice to feel more support from the city.”
Open Letter to the City of Los Angeles. Signed by 20 mutual aid groups, August 2023.
How Many Unhoused Angelenos Found Shelter During The Storm? LAist, August 2023.
Bass promises a new day on homelessness in LA but the people moved into motels have questions. LA Public Press, July 2023.
Crises collide as climate emergency pushes America’s homeless population to the brink. Guardian, April 2021.
How you can help
If you’d like to volunteer or donate to some of the organizations in our story, here’s where you can do that:
Catch of the day: Luther is a Mini Goldendoodle who loves to chase carpenter bees, but thankfully misses them every time! Reader Lisa says he chews up a storm, but makes up for it by being the cuddliest momma’s boy around.
Want to see your furry (or non-furry!) friend in HEATED? It might take a little while, but we WILL get to yours eventually! Just send a picture and some words to email@example.com.