Observing Los Angeles

LA's river homeless in the New Yorker

homeless-lacty-photo.jpgWhen the first storms thrown our way by El Niño were bearing down last week, the Los Angeles-based staff writer for the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear, went out and gave her readers a short fill-in on the latest in LA's homeless situation. It sets up with the premise that the Los Angeles River that people may have been hearing about is, in real life, home to a lot of people who live outside. They were now in the way of the runoff that races very predictability down the river channel whenever LA gets its periodic heavy rains. The efforts to go out and get people to move out of the river and washes, and to open more shelters and extend the hours when it rains, is really just "the emergency version of a plan that already doesn’t work."

Her piece is an effective summation of LA's biggest embarrassment. Here's an excerpt:

In the past two years, homelessness in the city and the county of Los Angeles has grown by twelve per cent—driven by unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, and by the cloudless days, one after the next after the next. The drought, excruciating for the marginal and landed alike in the agricultural communities of the Central Valley, has made living outdoors a little easier on the urban homeless. To the hardcore long-term unhoused, a flotilla of recruits has been added—some of them presumably locals forced from their dwellings by rising rents, others itinerant young “travellers.” You see the latter in the evening, moving in groups, with skateboards, dreads, and bedrolls, a pit bull or two among them, heading toward the setting sun and the “sandominiums” that spring up on the beachfront after dark. According to a report published in May by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there are now forty-four thousand homeless people in the county—a Burlington’s worth of people living in the street—and more than nine thousand five hundred camps, lean-tos, and vehicles serving as shelter.

In September, Los Angeles announced a state of emergency and a hundred-million-dollar budget to address the crisis. The resources will likely swell the ranks again. According to one social worker who does field work among the homeless in West Los Angeles, after the announcement people started turning up from as far away as Las Vegas: their cities had bought them one-way bus tickets to L.A. The result is a huge, often acutely vulnerable population in the path of a storm system already proving itself “brash,” nasty, cold, and fierce.

For months, as El Niño strengthened in the Pacific, police and social workers warned people living in especially precarious temporary riverside dwellings to move. They were out again this week, urging people to take shelter. For service providers, a storm can be an opportunity—the prod that gets someone to come indoors and enter a system where there may be numerous benefits available to them.

But the same tenacity and resourcefulness that make it possible for a person to live without basic comforts can make that person willing to weather seemingly impossibly unpleasant and dangerous conditions. They have built up endurance, because they have had to, and because often the alternatives impinge insufferably on their autonomy. People with homes are often reluctant to evacuate—they want to protect their stuff. For the homeless, this understandable desire is aggravated by the difficulties associated with seeking temporary shelter: there are few safe places to store belongings, and you can’t take with you more than you can carry on your lap. Is it worth starting your life over again for a night out of the rain?

Goodyear talks about how Los Angeles is a progressive city, thus "you can feel the desire of officials to be smart and innovative as a natural disaster collides with a man-made one." But City Hall has been losing the homeless fight for decades now.

Goodyear wrote last year too about rainfall in the LA area, and about the question of whether and how to save the Salton Sea.

Related: An LA County video on preparing for the storms.

Photo above: Shelter scene via LA County video.

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