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Los Angeles Officials Slow to Open Shelters for the Unhoused During Air Quality Emergency

As cities along the West Coast opened safe breathing spaces for unhoused residents, LA failed to follow suit until activist pressure…

As the air quality index soared to hazardous levels in much of Southern California on Friday and Saturday, public health agencies and elected officials warned residents to stay indoors, close windows, and run air conditioning to avoid respiratory hazards. But no guidance was given to the over 60,000 unhoused residents of Los Angeles county, despite an abundance of empty malls, public buildings, auditoriums, and convention centers throughout the county.

Smoke from the Bobcat and El Dorado Fires prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to issue a smoke advisory through Sunday, reminding residents to “limit your exposure by remaining indoors with windows and doors closed or seeking alternate shelter, and avoiding vigorous physical activity.”

Air quality index in Los Angeles County on Saturday morning (Source: PurpleAir)

“If you can see smoke, soot, or ash, or you can smell smoke, pay attention to your immediate environment and take precautions to safeguard your health,” said Dr. Muntu Davis, Health Officer for Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH). “These precautions are particularly important for children, older adults, and people with heart or lung diseases.”

Mayor Garcetti advised residents to stay indoors, ignoring the needs of unhoused residents (Source: Twitter)

Initially absent from these public health messages was information on where unhoused residents could seek refuge from the dangerous air quality. On Friday, I spoke with Helen Chavez, Assistant Director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), about the process of opening weather-related emergency shelters. She told me that OEM and DPH work collaboratively with cities to determine where to open cooling centers, based on factors such as temperature, relative humidity, wind, and availability, and that several cooling centers will be open for next week’s heat wave. When asked whether those discussions are taking place to address the current air quality emergency, Chavez told me that “nothing has been implemented or announced given the conditions outside, so that means there hasn’t been a determination made by DPH that we’re at those thresholds.” It was unclear why air quality is not considered in deciding when to open emergency shelters.

On Saturday, Chavez shared a statement from OEM, saying that the Office is “coordinating with several partner agencies to assess if there are sheltering needs for people experiencing homelessness due to air quality in our county.” As of this writing, no county-operated safe breathing facilities were available.

Chavez also told me that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) is the county’s primary partner for “sheltering-and housing-related issues for people experiencing homelessness,” and directed me to LAHSA for comment. I reached out to Ahmad Chapman, Director of Communications for LAHSA, who directed me back to OEM, saying OEM is the agency that provides support to people experiencing homelessness during wildfires. When I asked directly whether LAHSA is doing anything to help unhoused residents currently suffering from hazardous air quality, I was told again to reach OEM. In other words, the answer was no.

LA is doing worse than its west coast counterparts

It is worth noting that LA’s response has been worse than that of other major west coast cities. In San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle, officials opened several air conditioned public buildings, some open 24 hours, for those seeking refuge. In Portland, officials also opened additional shelter capacity and mobilized outreach teams to reach the most vulnerable unhoused residents. Outreach workers there secured 40,000 KN95 masks for distribution and those in need of shelter could dial Portland’s 211 to arrange transportation.

Oakland City Council will consider opening Oracle Arena and the Oakland Convention Center as “clean air buildings” (Source: Twitter)

I dialed 211 on Saturday asking what resources are available for my (fictitious) 57-year-old unhoused neighbor with asthma in Downtown that would allow him to safely breathe indoors. I was told he can go to one of two walk-in shelters in Skid Row, both of which had lengthy application procedures, stringent rules, and requirements to attend religious services. Alternatively, he could go to Lancaster, Lakewood, or Cerritos, where the county’s only four cooling centers are open. The closest of the four facilities was one hour and 33 minutes away by transit and closed at 6 PM.

The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, who operates city cooling centers during heat waves, did not respond to my request for comment for this story. Neither did the offices of Governor Newsom, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, or City Councilmembers Ryu, O’Farrell, Martinez, Koretz, Krekorian, Wesson, and Price.

  When asked if he took action beyond this tweet, Councilmember Ryu’s office did not respond to our request for comment (Source: Twitter)

Pressure from activists mounted on Saturday, forcing the city’s hand

As David Ryu tweeted, organizers with Ktown for All, Street Watch LA, People’s City Council, and Ground Game LA were working behind the scenes to raise funds for masks, eye wash, water, and other personal protective equipment to distribute to unhoused Angelenos

Organizers hosted events all over the city using the hashtag #coveringforeric (Source: Twitter)

Hours after organizers announced distribution sites in Koreatown, East Hollywood, Palms, and MacArthur Park, the city announced that just four “smoke relief centers” would be activated on Sunday, from 10 AM – 6 PM. The capacity of each smoke relief center was not listed, but I reported for KNOCK.LA on the lack of available space in cooling centers during last week’s heat wave.

The city provided one smoke relief center for approximately every four unhoused Angelenos. The capacity of the relief centers was not known. (Source: Twitter)

On Sunday morning, Councilmember Bob Blumenfield’s office provided a statement calling on the city and county to “put together a regional plan for when these situations happen that include staffing, facility and outreach needs — similar, if not more abundant than that of cooling centers. I will be discussing this with EMD this week because with climate change, this won’t be the last time this happens and a plan is needed so unhoused residents have a safe place to go.”

Councilmember Mike Bonin told me his office requested cooling/safe breathing centers on the Westside, but their request was denied due to inadequate funding and staffing. Bonin plans to introduce a motion to city council this week “asking our Emergency Management Department to coordinate with other agencies to significantly increase the number of what we should really be calling emergency refuge and relief centers, not cooling centers.” Bonin said the small number of available smoke relief centers was unacceptable for a city of LA’s size. “This will surely cost money and require resources, which is a particularly difficult conversation at City Hall right now, but letting people die is unacceptable.”

I asked Bonin whether there is a culture at City Hall of neglecting the needs of the unhoused and vulnerable. “There is a culture in government — all levels of government, not just city government — to forget people living on our streets,” he told me. “Every emergency activation plan should be required to have special provisions for the unhoused. We can’t announce emergency measures and then two days later say, ‘oh shit, we forgot about people living on our streets.’”

Volunteer outreach workers did the city’s job (again)

On Sunday morning, volunteer outreach workers gathered outside Mayor Garcetti’s house to distribute supplies and highlight the city’s failure to provide for the unhoused. I spoke with Jamie Penn from Ktown for All. “It wasn’t until we started applying pressure that the city announced it was opening smoke relief centers, so it shows that this kind of action works. We’re providing N95 masks to volunteers and anyone that wants to do outreach. This is just neighbors helping neighbors because our city failed us,” she told me.

During the record heat wave of the prior weekend, organizers set up a water distribution hub in the same location. At the mask distribution event, Penn noted, “the police came out with more units than we had at our last action. They already knew this was just outreach, not a protest, and they told me that the Mayor’s house had called them.” As we spoke, officers sat in two squad cars idling across the street. Moments before, the LAPD had sent a helicopter overhead to survey the scene for a few minutes. Penn estimated that just the cost of operating the $1,200/hour helicopter could have paid for hundreds more N95 masks. “I can only imagine the relief we could provide if we could pay someone what we’re paying those two officers to sit in that car to be doing what we’re doing. This is the service the community needs,” she told me.

Organizers give out supplies in front of Mayor Garcetti’s house. (Source: Kevin Varzandeh)

Ian Carr, an organizer with Ground Game LA and Street Watch LA, spoke to me about his outreach efforts during the air quality crisis. “Some of the people I have better relationships with who are smokers were coughing more than normal. They’re quite a bit older than me… these coughs are a lot heavier now, and they’re not COVID coughs.” Carr was on his way to Van Nuys to distribute supplies at an encampment where he recently witnessed a sweep. “I know a lot of outreach volunteers have been cutting short their time and their outreach because they need a break to breathe.” Carr told me he is not surprised by the city’s inaction based on their past responses to crises. “Believe people when they show you who they are. We are currently going through an air quality crisis, they have opened four shelters, and they’re not really in the places where unhoused people live. I’m not surprised in any way.”