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Al Jazeera America

Wednesday January 06, 2016

El Niño Downpours Raise Concern for California Poor and Homeless
Emergency funds in place to provide round-the-clock emergency shelters

By Haya El Nasser

LOS ANGELES - The much-anticipated El Niño downpours are here and while heavy rain is a blessing for drought-stricken California, its impact on the poor and the homeless could be disastrous.

Cities across the state are taking emergency measures to house the homeless as storms dumped up to two inches of rain Tuesday.

In Los Angeles, where an estimated 18,000 people live on the streets and another 8,000 are in shelters, the city has allocated $12.4 million to provide permanent and temporary housing.

The city created a website outlining emergency preparedness and resources.

Shelters that normally house people overnight now are staying open 24-7.

"They are taking very humanitarian steps making sure people can get in and outside of the rain," said Susie Shannon, executive director of the non-profit Poverty Matters, which is working on establishing a shelter bill of rights.

State Senators Monday proposed $2 billion to build or rehabilitate permanent housing for mentally ill people living in the streets.

In Venice, the seaside community south of Los Angeles, a shuttle bus picks up the homeless to take them to shelters.

San Francisco planned to add 1,100 temporary shelter beds. Recreation center, churches and the YMCA opened their doors to house those in need of shelter.

In Los Angeles' Highland Park neighborhood, volunteers with Recycled Resources for the Homeless opened a shelter at All Saints' Episcopal Church, allowing the homeless to sleep in the pews. The city approved $20,000 to keep the program running through the worst of the El Niño rains.

"That's a very positive step," Shannon said. She said getting people off the streets in cold and wet weather is crucial for the health of not just the homeless but the community at large.

"It's positive from a whole societal standpoint," she said.

Shannon said the homeless should avoid camping out near river banks, a popular site for encampments when the Los Angeles River bed is dry.

"Definitely stay away from there," she said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city has spent months clearing out thousands of storm drains to avoid flooding and will also activate its emergency operation centers to track the storms.

But the torrential rains drenching the state still are a concern for tenants in low-income housing.

The Los Angeles Times reported in August that since 2010, trash cleanups in poor neighborhoods significantly lag that of more affluent areas.

"The majority of neighborhoods with unmet requests are low-income," said Larry Gross, executive director of the non-profit tenants' rights Coalition for Economic Survival (CES) in Los Angeles.

The worry is that landlords may not respond to reports of leaky roofs during the stormy season. His organization has put out alerts urging tenants to call the city's housing department or call them if they don't get an adequate response.

"There are going to be a lot of tenants out there who don't know who to call, what to do," Gross said. "I'm extremely concerned about what tenants are going to face, particularly in those low-income areas ... We're going to see a lot of issues with leaky roofs and other issues that are going to cause damage to personal property and make living conditions unbearable."

City inspectors and code enforcers are on high alert to respond to complaints.

"The question is whether or not there are enough resources," he said.

While no one is spared potential damage - mudslides in affluent hillside neighborhoods and flash floods across the region - Gross said he is more concerned with those with less resources and less ability to deal with these challenges.

"Here are people who are for the most part trying to economically survive and they're being beat up left and right and we now have Mother Nature coming at them," he said.

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