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For the homeless, winter is colder and wetter

An agency aids hundreds each winter, but even when conditions are harsh, some prefer to stay outside.

January 04, 2011|By Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Stephen Boswell, 59, left, and Bobby Gutierrez, 45, secure their tents against high winds blowing ashore as the sun sets in Long Beach. The pair have lived along the Los Angeles River for two years and said they are ready for more cold weather ahead.
Stephen Boswell, 59, left, and Bobby Gutierrez, 45, secure their tents… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Concerned about high winds, Stephen Boswell, 59, grabbed a sandbag and lugged it over to the edge of his tent near the Anaheim Street Bridge in Long Beach, where he has been living for two years.

"My weight should keep the rest down," Boswell said. "Hopefully I won't get blown away."

Like many of the 48,000 homeless people across Los Angeles County, Boswell is bracing for what is shaping up to be a cold, wet winter. Many living near the bridge and along the Los Angeles River have begun doubling up on blankets and jackets, occasionally starting small fires to keep warm.

Standing near Boswell's tent, watching the river, Bobby Gutierrez, 45, said this winter season appears to be a strong one. "It's more rugged," Gutierrez said. "We've gotten a bunch of storms already," he said, adding that the worst of the winter months are still to come.

Forecasters agree: Southern California typically gets most of its rain in January and February. December in Los Angeles was one of the wettest since 1889, according to the National Weather Service and the wettest for Long Beach since 1971.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, said there's an ominous similarity between this early winter and that of 2004-05, when there was a large amount of rain. In fact, December 2004 broke a December rainfall record that was more than 100 years old. Last month's total of more than 10 inches topped that.

As a chain of rainstorms passed through the Southland, causing severe mudslides in some areas, forecasters issued several winter storm warnings, as well as flash flood and high-wind advisories. Along the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, where 10.41 inches of rain fell in December, people abandoned their wooden shack homes and took to higher ground. Most have returned to their homes since the water has receded.

On Sunday, snow levels dropped to 1,300 feet — bringing an unusual dousing of white flakes across Santa Clarita. By midday Monday, the last flurries of the storm had moved through Los Angeles, though temperatures in the Los Angeles Basin are expected to remain frigid through the week.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority each year provides emergency shelters and services to hundreds of homeless people through its Winter Shelter Program, which runs from the beginning of December through March 15.

"Those are the coldest parts of the year." said Calvin Fortenberry, a spokesman for the agency. "At one point we almost reached capacity last week."

This year, the program will provide 1,700 beds at 14 shelters across the county. In 2009, the program provided 8,605 individuals and 620 families with temporary shelter, Fortenberry said. More than 308,000 meals were served during the winter season. About 404 individuals who sought refuge at the shelters were later placed in housing, as were 227 families.

Fortenberry said the shelters are ready to help anyone seeking refuge from the frosty weather. "Our shelters are erring on the side of being as prepared as they can be, no matter what the forecasters say," Fortenberry said, adding that no one would be turned away if the shelters reach full capacity.

For Boswell and Gutierrez, who plan to ride out the winter season, all they can do to prepare is pile on more blankets.

"We'll be all right," Boswell said. "We'll stay warm by the good grace of God and from the help of people."

Nearby, Andres Flores, 35, who lives in an elevated wooden shack, said he's replaced rotten wooden planks. "I'm trying to cover up the small holes to keep cold air out," Flores said. Looking around, he said he's got four blankets to keep him warm at night. "What else can I do?" he added. "But this winter certainly feels worse."

Daytime temperatures are expected to remain in the low 60s through the week, with nighttime lows dipping into the upper 40s, forecasters said Monday.

"We just have to cope with the weather, that's all we can do," said Victor Pompa, 34. " You have no other choice when you're homeless."

Hector Becerra and Carla Rivera contributed to this report.

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