As LA’s overwhelmed shelters filled up Friday, it became a personal mission for most of the thousands of people who live outdoors to find refuge from the pouring rain and freezing temperatures.
Some relied on improvised solutions, while others just stuck with it.
James Blanton woke up Friday morning with snow on his tent and pain in his body.
“My hands and feet feel a lot of stabbing pain,” he said. “It is difficult.”
Blanton, 46, hung out with Chaz Hosein outside a McDonald’s in west Lancaster on Friday morning, expressing sympathy for his friend’s accident.
Hosein, 45, stood in the cold rain with his hands in his coat pockets, coughing and sniffling loudly.
Two weeks ago he was in the hospital.
“My body was swollen and I couldn’t breathe,” Hosein said. “The doctors told me it was congestive heart failure.”
When he returned to his encampment, he learned that cleaning crews had taken his tent and belongings. He’s been sleeping on the floor outside McDonald’s ever since.
“I’m not getting better and I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to die tonight.”
Hosein said he is tired and angry that there are not enough resources for the unhoused in Lancaster. He has mainly received help from homeless lawyer Eneida Molina.
She came over Friday with a box of instant noodles, a blanket, gloves, and medicine, including NyQuil.
“He’s really sick,” said the homeless attorney. “He has nowhere to go and will most likely end up in the hospital again.”
Hosein said he had tried to get into a shelter but was turned away.
“We’re human,” he said, crying. “We need shelter.”
To serve the approximately 48,000 people living on the county’s streets, the homeless system maintains about 11,000 year-round shelters, 270 winter beds and 27 hotels or motels that accept vouchers, according to the most recent estimate.
Many avoid the shelters and willingly live with the consequences.
“I can’t do shelter or housing or all that because of rules and curfews and regulations,” said Carlos Ivan Parra, who moves through Boyle Heights and downtown, saying he doesn’t want to get too “comfortable.”
Parra, 45, huddled under a tarp on a sidewalk in a skid row on Friday afternoon, warming himself with a fire he built in a shopping cart.
He said he has been living on the streets of downtown Los Angeles since he got out of jail in November 2019. He was placed in the Weingart Center but was kicked out after getting into a fight. He said he struggled with a meth addiction and was diagnosed with schizoaffective bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He considers going back to an asylum, but knows it’s not for him.
“It’s a mental issue,” he said. “I can’t stand being under rules. What time I can get out, what time I have to eat, it just feels like I’m in prison again.”
As this week’s storm approached, fire and law enforcement officials teamed up with outreach workers to patrol LA’s normally dry rivers and creeks, urging residents to seek higher ground before the channels turned deadly.
“Not all individuals decided to heed our warnings,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Erik Scott. But those left behind were not on the islands in the riverbed, but on the outer bank, he said, and their strategy seemed to be working.
As of Friday afternoon, there had been no rapid water rescues, Scott said.
In downtown Los Angeles, Union Station became a makeshift shelter for some.
On Friday morning, men curled up in blankets at the entrance to the Metro Red Line, many carrying clear plastic bags containing their belongings.
One of them, Billy Colbert, 85, pondered his next move.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do tonight, but I’m staying dry,” he said.
Colbert said he would consider going to a shelter, but not in the inner-city skid row where so many homeless services are concentrated.
“It’s too dirty, too mean,” he said. ‘I’m not crazy. I’d rather sleep on the street.”
Colbert has been living on the streets for six years and blamed himself.
“I was careless with my life,” he confessed. “I didn’t love myself anymore.”
He has gone through several shelter programs and found many of them to be “cutthroat” and not wanting to go back.
After much thought, he decided what to do.
“I’m on the train,” he said as he walked away. “I’m going to Pasadena.”
Dorcea Mayden has a more stable orbit aimed at Union Station.
“I’m not a tent person,” she said. “I’m a bus stop person.”
She and other women, mostly older ones, hang on the edges of Union Station where they can stay dry. When they are usually kicked off the premises around 1:00 am, they go to the nearby stairs, and by morning, when the station opens, they go to the bathrooms.
“It’s full,” she said. “In the morning we come and dry with the (hand) blow dryers,” she said.
Mayden, a former beautician, has been in and out of shelter programs since 2011 after a rent increase on her Chinatown home. In addition, she was unable to work following a stroke that affected her eyesight.
Dressed in an orange plastic poncho on Friday morning, she leaned against a high table eating a Subway sandwich as commuters sped by. Beside her was a cart full of food, clothes and toiletries. She said shelters won’t let her in with food or so many bags.
So she spent nights on the steps across from Union Station, where she says she and other women weathered storms.
“It’s been raining, it’s been cold,” she said. “We sleep on the stairs. There are many people there. Your fingers are numb, your toes are numb; you do what you have to do,” she said.
For some on skid row, the storm was a bearable inconvenience.
For the record:
9:40 a.m. Feb. 25,An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Reynaldo Roman as Reynaldo Romar.
“People get used to it,” Reynaldo Roman said as he cooked beans over an open fire. “It’s a mental thing. They try not to think about it.”
Roman, 39, said he lived on the edge of Skid Row for about a year after losing his job as a forklift driver and being evicted from his apartment. He built a shelter with a wooden roof.
On Friday, Paul Avila, founder of Pauly’s Project, stopped by to hand him clothing, gloves, and other warm-weather essentials.
Avila said he gives Roman mostly raw meat so he can cook for the whole street, where about seven other people live.
Roman said it’s hard to stay warm and dry during a rain shower. He didn’t have a coat with him on Friday so he went close to the fire.
Roman, who moved from Mexico to the US about three years ago, said he was not aware of warming centers or shelters but was not averse to going to them.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
Kitty Davis-Walker, a spokesperson for Union Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter, said it had received 47 calls since Monday from families in need of shelter.
The organization’s three shelters — Hope Gardens, Angeles House and the one in downtown Los Angeles — were all full as of Thursday morning, she said.
“We don’t have room anymore,” she said. “We keep trying to accommodate people. It’s bad. It’s very bad.”
With all the misery around him, Miguel Chavez, 26, caught a lucky break. He sat in the chapel of the Los Angeles Mission on Friday morning, enjoying a warm respite from his nights sleeping in the open air as the temperature dropped.
“You could tell because my outer extremities would go a little numb,” he said.
Chavez, who has been living on the streets in East Los Angeles for about a year and has been slipping, doesn’t have a tent and sleeps in the open with only a blanket to cover himself.
“It gets very cold at night and sometimes it starts to rain,” he said. “You have no way to dry your clothes.”
Dealing with substance abuse and the recent death of his mother, Chavez came to the mission on Wednesday hoping to recover. He said he hasn’t done any drugs lately, but he was afraid he couldn’t stay clean.
“I try to stay that way, but for some reason I can’t stay that way when I’m out there,” he said. “I see what it does to people here.”
He was one of the lucky ones. The shelter was full on Friday.
As about 100 people gathered for lunch on Friday, Chavez was reflective.
“When you get here you think, ‘Wow, I’ve really gotten used to just needing a blanket.’ And I don’t want to get used to that.”