LA authorities’ response to homeless citizens during California storms dubbed ‘abysmal’

Community organisers have accused Los Angeles authorities of “bold-faced lies” and said the city’s response to its unhoused population during the recent catastrophic storms has been “abysmal”.

Despite promises that extra aid would be available, contact with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has reportedly been difficult, exacerbated by the fact that many seeking shelter do not have phones or internet access.

The second of two powerful atmospheric rivers has battered the state of California since Sunday. As conditions worsened some community organisers have been forced to take matters into their own hands, and even sometimes their own homes.

It comes following an announcement last week by LA Mayor Karen Bass and the LAHSA, which promised “augmented winter shelter operations” to help the unhoused.

Four additional locations were allocated across the city; Mid Valley Senior Citizen Center, Lincoln Heights Senior Center, the South LA Sports Activity Center, and the Oakwood Recreation Center in Venice.

The new allocations provided a total of 291 extra beds.

Community organisers say the City of LA’s response to its homeless community during the storms has been ‘abysmal’ (AP)
Community organisers say the City of LA’s response to its homeless community during the storms has been ‘abysmal’ (AP)

On Wednesday, the mayor’s office said that LAHSA had activated six additional shelters for people experiencing homelessness “in addition to the seven previously established winter shelters”. An exact number of additional beds was not given.

Community organiser Carla Orendorff told The Independent that there were around 10,000 unhoused people in the area of San Fernando valley alone and that the idea of competing with others for such limited space was heartbreaking for some.

One individual, she said, had told her: “I don’t have a chance and honestly getting my hopes up that way would kill me.”

Getting hold of a representative from the LAHSA via a public phone number – 211 – was almost impossible, Ms Orendorff added. “I can say from our experience ... we never talked to an actual person, we were never able to get anyone inside. We tried for hours and hours each day,” she said.

The Independent has reached out to LAHSA for comment directly, and via the City’s joint information centre on the ongoing storm. No response, via phone or email, had been received at the time of publication.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor Bass said she had spent the day surveying damage across the city, saying that those renting property were “particularly vulnerable” and urged Angelenos to “check on your neighbours”.

“One of the experiences that the chief and I had out there was the way in the neighbourhoods that were heavily impacted – we saw neighbours come out to make sure that people were okay,” she said.

It is a sentiment shared by Ms Orendorff.

“We’re just a group of people who care about other people. We’ve been doing this for a few years but we’re not a nonprofit, we’re just, you know, we operate out of donations and friends and community support,” she said.

Due to the severity of the weather and the scarcity of accommodation, Ms Orendorff – who lives in an RV – ultimately took people into her own home.

Along with other mutual aid organisers, including her brother Anthony Orendorff, she also builds “storm kits” for distribution to those in need.

The severe California storms in previous days have hit LA’s unhoused population hardest (AP)
The severe California storms in previous days have hit LA’s unhoused population hardest (AP)

Ms Orendorff said the kits – which also contain items such as gloves, socks, hats, batteries, duct tape and clamps – are somewhat of a help to those who have been unable to access publicly provided shelter, but “are certainly not as good as a motel room”.

In parts of the city on Wednesday, blue skies returned, though the storm is expected to continue impacting California until Thursday or Friday. Clean-up operations are reportedly due to begin shortly, though Ms Orendorff remains sceptical.

“It was a disaster,” she said, referring to the response. “There was no help from the city and for [authorities] to just boldface lie to the public that you can just call 211 and get a room, I think that gave us a sense of complacency.”

She continued: “Homelessness is obviously the number one issue and I think most people, whether they know what to do or not, care and don’t want people suffering in the streets, I do believe that.

"For the city to so disingenuously just placate the fears that people had that ‘oh, yeah, they can just call a number’... most [unhoused] people, you know, don’t have phones.

“[The system] is not designed to help anyone that’s actually out there… It was such an abysmal response.”

The Independent has also reached out to Mayor Bass’ office for comment on the shelter space deficiencies and issues in contacting LAHSA services.