The crisis for America’s biggest homeless population is about to get much more acute

Sleeping rough could turn deadly this winter.
Sleeping rough could turn deadly this winter.
Image: AP Photo/Nick Ut
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There are more then 12,000 chronically homeless people in Los Angeles—nearly four times as many as in New York City, the second-highest metro area—and nearly all of them live outdoors. With southern California facing its wettest winter in decades, this already vulnerable population faces a perfect storm of danger.

This year’s El Niño, forecast to cause climate havoc around the world, is expected to bring heavy rains in southern California. This will be especially problematic for the estimated 700 to 800 people living in the greater LA area’s riverbeds, storm drains, and other flood control channels, which will be quickly overwhelmed by powerful floods when the rains arrive.

Authorities are warning that the storms ahead will be more powerful than any in living memory. There will be no outrunning them.

“If the rain that’s predicted comes, it’s going to be an immense situation down in the riverbeds,” lieutenant Geff Deedrick of the LA Sheriff’s Department tells Quartz.

Those on higher ground are at risk, too. In windy or damp conditions like those expected in January and February, when the worst of the rains are expected, hypothermia can set in at outdoor temperatures as high as 70°F (21°C).

Since July, the Sheriff’s Department and LA’s Homeless Services Authority have made hundreds of visits to encampments throughout the 172-mile network most at risk to warn residents about the dangers of the coming storms, offer them services, and encourage them to relocate before it’s too late.

“Our main focus is letting them know that we don’t want them to drown. This storm’s going to be quite different,” Deedrick said.

There are more people living on the streets in LA—where the homeless population grew 20% last year—than anywhere else in the country. In New York, just 4.2% of the city’s homeless are unsheltered (this podcast does a great job explaining why). In LA, 70% are.

It’s a problem city and county officials have struggled to address. In September, LA city officials promised to declare the homeless crisis an “emergency,” but the words haven’t been followed up with an official declaration or any meaningful reforms.

“No one ever lost an election because they did nothing about homelessness,” said Gary Blasi, professor emeritus of law at UCLA and special counsel at Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a campaign by the pro bono law firm Public Counsel to eliminate economic injustice.

But this time around, the loss of life could be great enough to actually change that political calculation, he said.