A Skid Row climate station in March. (Maylin Tu / LAPP)

It’s getting hot — the world saw the hottest week on record and LA County is in the midst of a heatwave with temperatures topping 90 degrees in Downtown LA.

Extreme heat can be deadly, especially for LA’s unhoused population. Skid Row, with the highest concentration of unhoused people in LA County, is considered an urban heat island, experiencing higher temperatures than surrounding areas due to heat-absorbing urban infrastructure and a lack of trees and shade.

But while residents in Skid Row are forced to cope with dire heat, the City of Los Angeles has failed to provide consistent sources of shade and water.

There will be four stations in Skid Row this summer, according to an announcement by Jarvis Emerson, director of Skid Row Strategies for Mayor Bass (Currently only one station is open). But even though the Skid Row stations will be restored to their original number by the end of this month, they still fall far short of meeting a growing need as climate change accelerates.

“It’s just — to me — an obscenity that at this day and age, the public doesn’t have access to clean, reliable water,” said Lisa Kaas Boyle, environmental attorney and co-founder of Skid Row Cooling Resources. “And having temporary cooling stations during the hottest part of the month — yeah, that’s necessary. So people don’t die. But it’s not enough.”

In the summer of 2021, the neighborhood had four pop-up, temporary cooling stations. In 2022, that number was reduced to two, a drastic cut that former Mayor Garcetti’s office chalked up to reduced funding. 

Though considered successful according to the data, the cooling stations may have fallen victim to a popular belief: That providing for unhoused people’s basic needs like food, water, bathrooms, or shade encourages them to stay on the street and fuels the homelessness crisis.

The cooling station program was wildly successful in its first year with 131,525 visits in total over three months and 6,000 in just the first week. The cooling stations consisted of tents erected on the sidewalk providing shade, mist, cold drinks, fruit and snacks depending on donations, and a place to sit and rest.

Not only did the stations provide shade and water, they also had Narcan on hand and distributed face masks, sunscreen and contraceptives. Staffed 24-hours-a-day by Urban Alchemy, they were a safe place for women to take refuge at night.

And the cooling stations are not the only strategy the city has pursued to mitigate the effects of climate change on Skid Row’s unhoused population.

Last November, Mayor Garcetti’s office also announced a warming center program to provide warmth and respite in the winter months. Despite securing funding for warming stations in October, the program did not launch until late February, after the coldest and rainiest days of the year had already passed (the single location that did launch was redubbed a “climate station”).

Why was the program cut?

Skid Row Cooling Resources may have been a victim of its own success. The popularity of the stations made them highly visible in some of the busier parts of the neighborhood, with people lining up in the morning to get fruit, water and coffee.

Last year, cooling stations were located across from the ReFresh Spot on Towne Avenue and at 7th Avenue and Stanford Street. Tom Grode, co-founder of Skid Row Cooling Resources, points out that the 7th and Stanford intersection is a more remote location that saw fewer people. He believes that the most popular location in the first year, at 6th Avenue and San Pedro Street in front of the Midnight Mission, was cut due to its high profile nature.

“There’s this ongoing issue in Skid Row that goes back many years,” said Grode, of the belief that even providing for an unhoused person’s basic needs encourages them to stay outside. “[They believe], ‘We don’t want to give people cold water under a tent — they’ll think it’s okay to live on the streets,’” said Grode.

The fate of the cooling centers is only one example of the city’s failure to provide adequate water, shade or bathrooms, a failure that creates dehumanizing conditions for the thousands of unhoused people struggling to survive in Skid Row.

Kendall Moran, program and relations manager at Street Symphony, was working at the Midnight Mission in summer 2021 as the community events coordinator. She says that the cooling stations provided a valuable opportunity to connect with unhoused people who wouldn’t seek out services from established providers due to past negative experiences.

“I learned that people just won’t go to those places. They’ll just be thirsty or hungry because of a severe lack of trust with the systems at large. So the cooling centers felt like a way to interact with people without having to force them inside.”

The cooling stations were a space with no strings attached — many programs in Skid Row meant to provide crucial services also require participants to meet certain drug or alcohol requirements or give up pets, possessions, or personal freedom. 

Despite this success, the city did not choose to place a station there the next year, 2022.

“I think that the issue was it looked visually like people were just hanging out,” she said. “And I think the city and the shelters have this idea that if you need help with something you should come inside to get it.”

Mayor Bass’s office would not comment on why the program was cut last year or why the second location was moved to 7th and Stanford.

“We cannot speak for the prior administration,” said spokesperson Gabby Maarse in an email.

The mayor’s office also did not provide the number of the visits for the first and second year after multiple emailed requests.

“It’s just tragic,” said Boyle of the second year cuts. “But it just shows that, sadly, the needs of the unhoused population aren’t a priority. It’s just terrible — because of course, the need has gone up, not down.”

Temporary solutions for a rapidly heating planet

Although the cooling stations provide needed relief, they reflect a broader failure by the city to protect unhoused residents from extreme heat.

Instead of investing in more permanent improvements like water fountains or water bottle refill stations, the city forces Skid Row residents to rely on pop-up water bars, bottled water supplied by non-profit groups like Water Drop LA and water filtration systems donated by celebrities. This despite the fact that California declared water a human right in 2012.

In 2016, the city installed temporary water fountains to address the heat, but these were removed very soon after.

Similarly, instead of increasing the tree canopy in Skid Row and other underserved neighborhoods, the city has removed and trimmed trees under the direction of the LAPD in the name of preventing crime.

And it’s not just the LAPD. According to Katherine McNenny, citizen forester and co-founder of Industrial District Green, new affordable housing developments in Skid Row are getting waivers from the city to plant fewer trees than city code requires. For example, Weingart Tower, a 19-story supportive housing complex, got its tree planting requirement reduced by 50%. 

“We’re never going to get a development that big in this community — maybe ever again — and the amount of trees that we’ve essentially lost [by] having the city just waive these requirements is substantial.”

In fact, removing shade can be a strategy to keep unhoused people out of public spaces. In Lakewood, New Jersey last year, city officials cut down all the trees to deter unhoused people from spending time in the town square. Last month, an LAPD officer emailed Councilmember John Lee’s office asking to trim or remove a tree in Shadow Ranch Park specifically to deprive unhoused people of shade, noting that the tree, located in the parking lot, wasn’t providing shade to park visitors.

Tom Grode, co-founder of Skid Row Cooling Resources, is happy that there will be four cooling stations this summer instead of two, opening at the end of this month. Currently, he is circulating a petition to place one of the cooling stations at 6th and San Pedro.

If you or someone you know needs access, there is currently one cooling station in Skid Row on Towne Avenue between 5th and 6th Avenue. Mayor Bass released a list of cooling stations on Friday, but this station was not included.

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.