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Housing and Homelessness

As Statewide Death Toll From Storm Climbs, LA Officials Worry About Riverbeds

Brown water surges through the Los Angeles river on a rainy day. Several large tree branches float through the river.
The Los Angeles River on Jan. 10, 2023. The L.A. River is one of 16 water channels officials have visited in the last two weeks to warn people of rising water levels.
(John Rabe
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In the midst of back-to-back storms, outreach teams across L.A. County each day are contacting about 100 people who live along riverbeds and encouraging them to take refuge at emergency winter shelters throughout the county.

“We're on foot and we're in vehicles, and we make P.A. announcements,” said Sgt. Matt Coppes, part of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Homeless Outreach Services Team. “We also go and make personal contact with each homeless individual within the riverbed.”

Across L.A. County, more than 48,000 people are estimated to be without shelter, according to the latest count released last fall. The unhoused population is particularly vulnerable during dangerous weather like the series of major storms that have batter California.

There have been at least 19 storm-related deaths in California since late December — at least three of those killed were believed to be unhoused.

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Delivering Warnings

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has partnered with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to warn unhoused Angelenos about potential dangers, and to share information about where to go for some respite from the cold rain.

The outreach teams have visited at least 16 water channels in the past two weeks, including the L.A. River, Rio Hondo, the San Gabriel River and Coyote Creek. The goal, said Coppes, is to prevent death and swift water rescues as water levels rise.

Kimberly Barnette, associate director of access and engagement at LAHSA, said they encourage unhoused Angelenos to seek higher ground, or seek shelter.

LAHSA provides unhoused Angelenos with emergency shelter during heavy storms. It also hosts an annual Winter Shelter Program during the coldest months. Both programs welcome pets and emotional support animals.

Life Along The Rio Hondo

Mario Medrano has been unhoused for two years. He used to share an apartment in Bell Gardens with his mother, but was unable to stay there after her death in 2021. He now lives in a sturdy three-panel dwelling made of recycled materials along the Rio Hondo channel in Downey.

A cyclist cross a bridge at sunset. Beneath him, a shallow river runs through.
The bridge on Florence Avenue in Downey, where Medrano makes his home.
(Julia Barajas

On Wednesday afternoon, an outreach team approached Medrano to warn him about the coming rain.

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For now, Medrano has decided to stay put. He’s said he’s not bothered by rising water levels, and the Florence Avenue bridge, which serves as his roof, protects him from the wet weather. Still, he said he appreciates the check-ins and offers to go to a shelter.

“I wouldn’t mind it,” he said. “The only thing is it would be hard for me to adjust to their hours and to their schedules."

For more information about emergency housing, you can call 2-1-1 or visit LAHSA’s website.

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