With stronger than normal El Niño rains expected this winter, authorities in Southern California are making a big effort to move homeless people who are camping in riverbeds. Together, Los Angeles city and county have spent $2 million to open winter homeless shelters early. Outreach programs are coordinating with law enforcement to relocate the most vulnerable. But, the people at risk from flash floods often have different ideas about their housing needs.
Coyote Creek is a tributary of the San Gabriel River that runs through La Mirada, in southeast Los Angeles County. This section of the riverbed has been lined with concrete. It’s as wide as a two-lane road, and almost completely dry.
The team from People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, canvasses, stopping at every encampment they can spot. They’ll approach a tent by announcing, “Good morning. Anyone home? We’re outreach workers.”
Often the voice responding from inside the tent answers, “I’m busy right now.” The outreach people leave flyers with information about El Niño and the closest homeless shelter. An estimated 800 people in Los Angeles County live in riverbeds and flood channels, and they intentionally make themselves hard to find. Some people hide or live in storm pipes. These can be four feet in diameter, often covered inside with graffiti and completely dark without a flashlight.
On top of being elusive, the river dwellers are often mobile. Carlos Santos, 26, is a migrant worker from Guerrero, Mexico. The team found him sleeping on a crude scaffold in the support beams under a bridge, about 20 feet above the riverbed.
PATH outreach liaison Jorge Guzman shouted up to Carlos in Spanish, warning him that the river could rise so high that he would be trapped. But Carlos responded that he’s just passing through, in search of work, and will be gone before the next storm.
There are some people who refuse to leave. In that case, law enforcement will come through and sweep everyone out.
But, it doesn’t necessarily last.
Tomasz Babiszkiewicz, an associate outreach director at PATH, pointed to four red shopping carts, parked in front of a culvert.
“This area has been cleaned just recently," he said. "So it looks like the people just moved in. “For the past couple of days, they’ve been moving in. That’s why they’ve brought the shopping carts and brought their belongings from another area.”
As a result, there are constantly new people living in the riverbeds who need to be warned.
And some people need to hear the message more than once. The team found a 65-year old man camped in front of a storm pipe. They explained to him about the dangers and all the free services available. But it wasn't clear that the message got through. The man seemed a little disoriented. And a few minutes after speaking with the outreach workers, he sang love songs in Spanish to the pigeons under the bridge.
He may not have been ready to go to the winter shelter that day.
But outreach workers will come back to visit people again and again, said Meredith Berkson, south county director of programs at PATH.
“We find that it takes at least five contacts usually to get someone to come with us to DMV or go to the Social Security office to get the required documentation to move forward on a housing plan," she said.
But that idea of a ‘housing plan’ is relative. Frank Inigguc, 60, has camped on the bank of Coyote Creek for two years. If it starts to rain really hard, he said, he’ll move to a shelter. But only temporarily. Then he’ll return to the river.
Later, at the Salvation Army winter shelter in Bell, I meet other men who said the same thing: they plan to wait out the rainy season indoors, and in the spring, move back to the streets.