'I was flooded out': L.A. shelters near capacity as the unhoused seek refuge from storm

Rain poured into Toni Willis’ small tent Monday night as a historic storm drenched Southern California, soaking her belongings and leaving her cold, wet and miserable.

That same night, outreach workers stopped by her tent at Century Boulevard and Main Street, offering her a bed at a nearby winter shelter.

Smoking a cigarette outside the shelter at the South Los Angeles Sports Activity Center on Tuesday, with rain still coming down, she said she was grateful.

“It’s much better now,” said Willis, 43. “I’m able to sleep.”

The storm, which has dumped rain almost nonstop since Sunday, inundating roads and causing devastating mudslides, has been brutal for the more than 75,000 unhoused people in L.A. County.

From November to March, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority opens additional shelters on top of the 25,000 temporary beds it operates year-round. This year, there are 388 regular winter shelter beds, plus six additional shelters with more than 340 beds.

As of Tuesday afternoon, LAHSA said nearly all of its winter shelters were at capacity, with only a shelter in Duarte having 72 empty beds.

While some homeless people prefer to brave the elements in their own tents, the prolonged, severe soaking proved too much for those like Willis who accepted a bed indoors.

In Long Beach, which operates its own emergency shelters, city officials said they were also at capacity and, much like the county, were using hotel vouchers to get people indoors.

At a Tuesday morning news conference, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass responded to questions about whether the city had provided enough shelter for its unhoused population.

“I don’t believe we could ever have enough shelters, I mean, considering we have 46,000 people who are unhoused” in the city, she said. “One of the things we are going to be evaluating … is the need for additional shelters.”

At the South Los Angeles Sports Activity Center, which is one of the six additional winter shelters, people walked in and out to smoke or purchase snacks from a nearby liquor store.

Lavena Johnson, 61, made her way down an alley, trying to avoid small puddles. Johnson, whose tent is a short distance from the shelter, said outreach workers stopped by Monday night. She accepted the bed, hoping it could lead to something more permanent.

“It’s been cold and horrible, just horrible,” she said. “My shoes are still wet.”

Johnson, who said she has been living on the streets for about 15 years, said this storm finally broke her, and she’s desperate to find housing.

“I really want a place to live,” she said while stepping into a puddle.

At 67th and Flower streets, two blue tents were nestled beneath the 110 Freeway. The street was flooded, and passing cars sometimes splashed water on the tents.

Ansel Perez, 46, shivered as he walked back to one of the tents with a bag of tortillas, jalapeños and two lemonade bottles. Perez had hoped to avoid getting wet after a break in the storm, but it began to rain before he made it home.

To keep warm, he stays in his tent and wraps himself in a blanket.

“What else can you do?” he said.

Perez has been living on the streets for a year after he lost his job at a furniture store and was unable to pay his rent. He didn’t know about the shelter three blocks away and said he would stay there if offered a bed.

Nearby, Brandon Ellis, 44, leaned against a wall and kept his hands in the pockets of his blue jacket. For the last few days, he said, he has gotten soaked and has been trying to find ways to stay out of the rain. He doesn’t own a tent, or even a blanket.

“I’m trying to get a tent,” he said. “I need more wool and stuff to keep warm.”

When informed of the winter shelter, Ellis said he didn’t want to go there, launching into a long discussion of truth serums and the power of his mind.

Shortly after, he asked where the shelter was.

Nearly 15 minutes later, Ellis still stood in the same spot with his hands in his pockets as more cars splashed water near the tents.

Times staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.

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