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Cold Spell Strains Shelter System

By Olin Ericksen
Staff writer

January 19 -- It's ten to nine, and the West L.A. cold weather shelter has just hit capacity when another busload of homeless people pulls up.

"We don't have room," says Marcus Jones, the sleep-deprived 24-year-old supervisor who ensures 150 people get a hot meal and cot at the Armory on cold and rainy nights.

"The bad news is the other shelters are full too."

The homeless settle in at the West LA cold-weather shelter. (Photos by Olin Ericksen)

As a usually temperate Central and Southern California weathers one of its longest cold streaks in years, much of the recent media attention has focused on farmers who may lose millions of dollars in citrus and avocado crops eviscerated by the freeze.

But there are other victims the ice-forming temperatures may be threatening: many of the estimated 82,000 homeless who live in Los Angeles County, and perhaps, the system of 1,800 cold-weather beds that homeless experts say is operating at 90 to 95 percent capacity.

"We have definitely seen a spike in the cold weather shelters used," said , the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the agency coordinating the programs. "It's been incredibly cold… and it would be dangerous to be outside right now."

As for the Westside -- which has nearly 300 cold weather beds at two shelters in Culver City and West Los Angeles -- people are coming out of the cold in record numbers, including many from Santa Monica, homeless officials said.

"This is the most people I've ever seen seeking shelter in all my time here," said Henry Wilson, who for three years has been a program director for Volunteers of America (VOA), which runs the Westside shelters.

Scores of homeless stood outside the OPCC center at Seventh Street and Colorado Avenue Tuesday waiting for a VOA -chartered school bus to cart them to a Westside shelter.

"This is the coldest I've seen it in years," said Robert, a homeless man who was visibly shivering as he waited for a ride.

While there was enough room within the 17 countywide shelters Tuesday night for everyone who sought a bed, more than a dozen homeless were initially turned away from the two Westside shelters managed by VOA, homeless officials said. And they was no room for them at the Glendale shelter used if the Culver City and West LA facilities are full.

"I've never heard of that happening before," Isaacs said.

Those turned away were given a bed elsewhere in the county, complying with a policy that forbids shelters from turning anyone away, officials said.

"They are definitely not being left outside," Isaacs said.

The homeless board a bus outside the OPCC Center in Santa Monica.

Yet the incident – nearly five days after a cold weather advisory was issued by LAHSA – is evidence that the Arctic air that dropped snow on Malibu this week is testing the county’s cold-weather shelter system, which operates between December 1 and March 1.

Run by VOA and other non-profits and funded by LAHSA, the system is expected to have to weather the test into next week, with temperatures expected to continue to drop into the low forties each night through the weekend.

"There are times when, because we live in this area, the weather is not that big a deal, so these cold weather shelters have been very important when this weather hits every few years," Isaacs said.

In addition to the 1,800 cold-weather shelter beds, there are another 23,300 shelter beds countywide. Of those, 9,500 are transitional shelter beds, 8,500 are permanent shelter beds and 5,300 are emergency shelter beds, according to Dave Martel, LAHSA’s contract unit manager.

"We're significantly short of shelter beds, considering that nearly 82,000 people are estimated to be on the streets each night," he said.

Some of the homeless who were not in shelters this week may still have slept with a roof over their heads, Isaacs said.

"A percentage are in hospitals and jails, and some people are in spaces unfit for human habitation, such as garages," she said. "That's one of the problems with counting homeless people."

While the county spends nearly $3.5 million a year to run the cold weather shelters, the price is relatively cheap, at just $18 dollars per cot per night. It also pays for supervision, use of the facility, showers and a meal, Martel said.

The City of Los Angeles is shelling out money to add another 200 beds by February 1, Martel said.

But before the beds go online, another cold front is expected to pass through Southern California.

"We are getting ready for another night," said VOA program director Wilson.

Bus service to cold weather shelters in Culver City and West L.A. begin in Santa Monica at 5:30 p.m. outside of the OPCC center on Seventh Street and Colorado Avenue. For more information call LAHSA at 1-800-548-6047.




“This is the most people I've ever seen seeking shelter in all my time here." Henry Wilson


“A percentage are in hospitals and jails, and some people are in spaces unfit for human habitation.” Rebecca Isaacs


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