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L.A. River's Homeless Find Shelter During El Niño Storms

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Jesse has lived in Highland Park for more than 15 years, but has spent the last 3 years living on the streets of her own neighborhood. Prior to becoming homeless, Jesse had lived with her mother and siblings in an apartment near the L.A. River. She quit her job to take care of her sick mother and shortly after her mother passed away, Jesse and her siblings were evicted from their apartment.

They spent the next couple of months bouncing around from place to place, sleeping in a friends truck, then in a nearby park, until she and her sister were threatened by a local resident. The man shot a gun at them on more than one occasion, telling them they had to leave the park. Following that incident, they moved to a section of Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, away from the view of park patrons, until they were thrown out by park rangers.

That's when they sought refuge in the Arroyo Seco, a tributary of the Los Angeles River that runs through Northeast Los Angeles. There, they were welcomed by a homeless community, with tents that lined the river's banks. The tents were set up as if they were apartments, with tapped in electricity, mattresses and even chickens. Eventually city mandated cleanups pushed them out of the river and although many went back into the Arroyo, Jesse and her sisters opted to hide anywhere they could, worried about how they were going to keep dry and safe when El Niño hit.

 Many of Los Angeles' homeless congregate in the river 'Islands,' taking advantage of the area's relative safety and shelter.
Many of Los Angeles' homeless congregate in the river 'Islands,' taking advantage of the area's relative safety and shelter.

Jesse was just one of many of Northeast Los Angeles' homeless who saw living in the Arroyo as the last resort. "In the three years that I've been homeless, the Arroyo was the safest. Everybody looked out for each other," she said. Hidden away from hostile neighbors and the harassment of park rangers, the only threat to the lives of those living in the Arroyo was the rain that could transform the L.A. River into a deadly torrent in the blink of an eye. But, as the potentially calamitous storms of El Niño have officially arrived, a Highland Park nonprofit is using city funds to offer them a bed in Northeast Los Angeles' only shelter.

"We needed one in the area and we are so close to the Arroyo, it could be deadly," said Rebecca Prine, founder and director of Highland Park nonprofit, Recycled Resources. The tents that were once confined to Skid Row and are now scattered throughout Los Angeles, can be attributed to the 12% increase in homelessness in the last two years. The Arroyo housed one of the city's largest homeless encampments and at last count, housed more than 35 people, advocates said.

With city homeless relief funding stalled and the nearest homeless shelters and service centers located as far as Skid Row and Glendale, Recycled Resources decided to take the homeless crisis into their own hands. On December 1, they opened the Northeast Los Angeles Winter Access Center and used the nave of Highland Park's All Saints' Episcopal Church as their shelter.

"I would say about half the people in here lived in the Arroyo at one point or another," says Monica Alcaraz, Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council president, as she looked around All Saints'. "They're safe here."

At the All Saints' Episcopal Church in Highland Park, men and women living in the L.A. River find shelter during this year's anticipated storms.  | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.
At the All Saints' Episcopal Church in Highland Park, men and women living in the L.A. River find shelter during this year's anticipated storms. | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.

While it's a chilly 50 degrees outside, the heater keeps the church's interior warm. Friends and volunteers hang out near the back entrance to greet the visitors as they arrive. People grab hot coffee and donuts before settling in for the night. On many nights, even before the storms, the shelter is at capacity, with more than 30 people taking refuge in the church. "I'm so grateful to be out of the cold. It was freezing outside, my teeth were chattering," said Jesse. She sat in one of the church's pews, watching an action movie on a television that was mounted high above the steeple. The pew is where Jesse would make her bed that night, with a red sleeping bag, pad and a pillow given to everybody on their first visit.

Recycled Resources started the shelter as a grassroots effort, operated by volunteers and funded by donations. Knowing the donations wouldn't be enough to hold the shelter over until March, Recycled Resources awaited the approval of $12.4 million in emergency homeless relief funding from the city, a portion of which was for an additional 650 winter shelter beds in high-risk locations, including the L.A. riverbed, the Tujunga Wash and the Arroyo Seco.

Once the funding was approved by the City Council on December 9, City Council approved two motions that would allow the shelter access to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority funds, a joint city and county agency, and $20,000 from 14th District Councilmember Jose Huizar's own discretionary funding. However, the funds still fall short of the $75,000 the shelter requested to operate through the winter.

"The city and county has done a horrible job of focusing on the needs of the homeless for decades and with El Niño coming, it has really woken everybody up to do something. We are much more focused and we gotta make sure to provide as much shelter as possible," says Councilman Huizar. "It's very important that this center stays open because we are also trying to decentralize homeless services. They cannot all fit Skid Row or Venice Beach, they have to be dispersed because people are coming from all over the region".

The shelter provides 30 beds, leaving more than 800 homeless in the Northeast without shelter during the winter months. To make up for the scant amount of beds, a motion was also passed to open an emergency winter shelter in the river-adjacent Bridewell Armory in Highland Park.

Many churches and and organizations are wanting to follow Recycled Resources' example and are calling on them for advice on how to open a shelter in their own churches and community centers, said Alcaraz.

"People are calling from everywhere to know how we did it. We think it's great," said Alcaraz.

The recent allocation of additional funds to homeless shelters like Recycled Resources will help provide temporary food and roof, though more is needed to address this citywide issue.  | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.
The recent allocation of additional funds to homeless shelters like Recycled Resources will help provide temporary food and roof, though more is needed to address this citywide issue. | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.

The city's move to allocate funding for emergency winter shelters in river-adjacent neighborhoods could be a life-saving move. During a storm, those living in or near the river could be facing life-or-death situations. The encampments built along the river's banks, in the rafters of bridges and in the vegetation growing along the riverbed risk being swept up by deadly currents that can reach up to 45 mph. A storm that brought a few hours rain to Los Angeles in September, left more than 4 people and a dog needing to be rescued out of the river. During that storm, Jesse and her sister went looking for their brother who they feared was in the river.

"As we were crossing to the other side where the encampments were, the water raised up to our knees fast. It's scary, it's strong enough to take you away. Luckily we were able to find my brother, but later we went back and there was a lot of people stuck on the other side, the water was too high for them to cross," said Jesse of the area of the Arroyo that trails the 110 Freeway.

In 2015, the Los Angeles Fire Department made 5 rescues in the approximately 10 miles of river in their jurisdiction. "People need to stay away from the river during rainy weather. They underestimate how fast it moves. What looks like something that's easy to cross, might be 6 feet deep. It'll sweep you off your feet and if you're not familiar with the water, you may not survive," said Los Angeles Fire Department Fire Captain, Thomas Henzgen.

Shelter volunteers and staff are better able to help locate permanent homes and other services for homeless men and women once they have arrived to the shelter.  | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.
Shelter volunteers and staff are better able to help locate permanent homes and other services for homeless men and women once they have arrived to the shelter. | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.

LAPD's Northeast Division is also taking measures to ensure the safety of the those living along the river. "We go in there and tell them the rain is coming and it's best for them to get out or they could drown. It's been our focus to get the homeless population out of the river before El Niño," said Ruben Arellano, senior lead officer at the Northeast Division.

The officers from the Northeast Division have been doing outreach to the homeless in the Arroyo once a month but have stepped up their efforts in anticipation of El Niño. This past November, they started a transient detail that employs two officers who do outreach to the homeless throughout the division, including the Arroyo and other parts of the L.A. River. They give out information for shelters and access centers, most of which are not in the area.

"A lot of the time the police or agencies will go into the river and offer people services but the services and shelters are totally inaccessible in Skid Row. Now they can refer them to us," said Prine.

A volunteer at All Saints' walks around and asks if anybody needs new shoes. They are slightly scuffed pink Nike tennis shoes, just half a size too small for Jesse. An older man with long hair and a grey beard walks around with a self-portrait he drew with charcoal, while a volunteer discusses the paperwork needed to secure housing with a visitor on a nearby pew.

"I turned my paperwork in yesterday. I'm happy to finally receive Section 8 [housing] but if it's not processed by March, we're back in the streets. We might end up back in the Arroyo," said Jesse.

Apart from offering beds, the access center provides assistance in social services and securing permanent housing. Prine said they've surveyed most people at the shelter, but because they don't have a day staff to get people to the DMV to secure the documents needed for housing, the process becomes more challenging. They are hoping that the once the winter is over, they can turn the winter access center into a permanent fixture that also offers services throughout the day.

"I do believe we can put people in housing by March 1, but its a long process and people are at the mercy of their case manager. It could be hard to find people housing when they live in the street, but having them here in the shelter helps."

If housing isn't secured before the time the shelter closes in March, many are forced back onto the streets of the Northeast where the homeless continue to be shuffled around, advocates said.

Rising housing costs have pushed many out of their homes and into the streets where new laws make it easier for police and rangers to get the homeless to move on, but advocates said many of the Northeast's homeless don't want to leave their neighborhood. Laws enacted in July of 2015 give homeless people 24 hours to remove their belonging from sidewalks and parks or face confiscation or misdemeanor charges. In Highland Park's Sycamore Park, signs have gone up prohibiting camping and the City Council is considering a motion that would prohibit people from parking RVs and campers overnight on Figueroa Street near the park.

Rising housing costs have pushed many out of their homes and into the streets.  | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.
Rising housing costs have pushed many out of their homes and into the streets. | Photo by John Urquiza / sin turistas.

These laws have forced many to seek refuge in marginal areas of the neighborhood like the Arroyo and parts of the L.A. River, but "cleanups" mandated by Councilmember Gil Cedillo have forced many people out, creating a process that cycles people in and out of the area's marginalized waterways.

"It's not like these people are service resistant, there's no services here. You can't really give somebody a ticket for sleeping in the park, when there isn't really anywhere for them to go. To tell somebody they can go to Skid Row when they live here, I don't think it's very fair," said Prine.

Jesse considers the prospect of moving back into the Arroyo. "It's hard living in the Arroyo, but it's harder living in the streets. I'm just hoping my paperwork is done so we can have somewhere to go when this place closes, but right now I'm so grateful to have this place. It's safe here and I'm not freezing".