For much of the past two weeks, as much of Southern California prepared to endure a large winter storm, bringing scores of rain, snow and possible thunderstorms, the city and county governments have scrambled to accommodate one of the region’s most vulnerable populations: people experiencing homelessness.

As Angelenos prepared to sit down for their Thanksgiving dinner, the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County announced they were opening seven winter shelters early, starting Nov. 27, including one in Skid Row. The spaces weren’t set to open until Sunday, Dec. 1, and will close at the end of March.

These early openings matter. Those are four more days that people are not out in the cold and the rain, conditions that can and have been deadly. More than 1,000 homeless people died on city and county streets in 2018. Five people died last year in the county due to issues related to hypothermia. These shelters can save lives.

But still, this isn’t something leaders should be patting themselves on the back for. These winter shelters work, so why do they not open sooner?

It takes money to operate these shelters and it’s fair to acknowledge that the cost can add up. But when Los Angeles is facing a humanitarian crisis, devoting much of its resources and focus to fighting homelessness, it does not make sense that the city and county is not placing more focus on creating longer running winter shelters. It’s not as if each winter comes by surprise.  

The city and county have talked extensively about developing comprehensive strategies to tackle homelessness. Many of those plans are evident, from bridge housing to the combined efforts of Proposition HHH and Measure H. That makes the piecemeal rollout of the winter shelters all the more baffling.

It’s not as if last weekend’s storm is the only issue that homeless people have had to deal with as the winter months creep in. Los Angeles’ homeless population was still left to the elements a week prior due to the first big rain of the season, many awaking to find their possessions soaked by a midnight torrent. However, wet conditions are not the only issue that homeless individuals have to contend with. With the winter months come biting cold that brings with it a whole different host of issues for the homeless population. In those situations, an accessible emergency shelter is an essential tool for surviving the drop in temperature.  

It’s worth noting that the shelters that opened early represent just 271 of the 1,700 combined beds that opened at its regularly scheduled time. But these beds are just a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands of people who go without permanent shelter each day in Los Angeles. Even with these shelters, people will still have to face the elements this winter on a nightly basis. It’s too late to address these years concerns, but looking ahead, leaders should explore ways to open these shelters sooner.

©Los Angeles Downtown News 2019