As L.A. faces 1st blizzard in 34 years, advocates race to get people off the streets

As It Happens6:02As L.A. faces 1st blizzard in 34 years, advocates race to get people off the streets

California may be known for its Hollywood glamour and sunny climate, but people freeze to death on the streets of Los Angeles every year. And that was before a winter blizzard hit the city this week.

“It’s extremely cold, especially for Southern California. It gets to the point where you can’t feel your fingers,” Andy Bales, president of the Union Rescue Mission in L.A., told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

“To think that anybody would be out on these streets right now is horrifying.”

L.A. is currently under its first blizzard warning in 34 years, as a winter storm batters huge swathes of the United States.

The National Weather Service warned of a “cold and dangerous winter storm” that would last through Saturday in California. Blizzard warnings were posted in the Sierra Nevada and Southern California mountain ranges, where as much as 1.5 metres of snow was expected.

In Southern California, the latest storm began moving in Thursday with rain and snow flurries. Flood watches and warnings were in effect through Saturday afternoon for some coastal regions and valleys.

Officials also warned the execessive rain could lead to mudslides especially in areas where wildfires have burned in recent years.

Putting people in hotels

That’s bad news for L.A. County’s more than 69,000 homeless people.

Already, the Union Rescue Mission’s 1,350 beds are full. Nevertheless, Bales has spent the last three days going on local newscasts and begging people not to sleep outside.

“I told everybody my phone number — my personal phone number — and told them that if we run out of capacity at the mission, that we will put them in a hotel,” he said. “And people are taking me up on that. “

Since his first TV appearance on Monday night, he says he’s received 49 calls.

“I dread the thought of how many people are dying even as I speak. And it’s not a pleasant death. Death by hypothermia is a great deal of suffering,” he said.

A car drives through a blizzard past snow-covered trees.
A motorist drives through snow in the Angeles National Forest on Thursday. For the first time since 1989, the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Southern California mountains. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

He’s not being hyperbolic. Temperatures don’t need to drop below zero to become deadly. 

Without the proper clothes or shelter, a person can get hypothermia at 10 C, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. That was the temperature in L.A. on Friday afternoon.

According to a 2019 report by the L.A. Times, more people die in the city due to hypothermia and cold exposure than in San Francisco and New York City combined. 

At least 14 people froze to death on L.A.’s streets just last year, according to the Guardian. 

Dozens of people stand in line outside a row of buildings.
People wait in line to collect a free meal in the Skid Row community of L.A. in December. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Terry Stephen lives in a trailer with her son and his girlfriend in Palmdale, Calif., just north of L.A. She told the Times he was temporarily placed in a hotel room northeast of the city after shivering through the night Wednesday.

“It was frigid; your bones ache and you can’t get warm,” she said. “I had three blankets on me last night and I was still freezing. Nothing helped.”

Hope on the horizon

L.A. county has opened dozens of warming centres in light of the weather. And the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority announced that 143 new shelter beds would be available through the end of March as a part of the city’s new Winter Shelter Program.

Bales says those measures are long overdue. But he does have some hope for the future, he said.

Two men talk outside.
Andy Bales, right, is the president of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. (Submitted by Andy Bales)

On her first day in office in December, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency to grapple with the city’s homeless crisis, and laid out a plan to get 17,000 people into housing in her first year through a mix of interim and permanent facilities.

“I’m encouraged by that for the first time in my 18 years serving here in Los Angeles,” Bales said. 

But that’s the long-term. In the here and now, he’s just focused on getting people out of the storm.

“We just can’t live with the thought of a human being being left on the street,” he said. “We’re ready to rent as many hotel rooms as possible.”

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