Update: As of late August, three cooling stations are now open. For reasons that are unclear, until August 21 only one station was active.
In Skid Row, where thousands of unhoused residents deal with extreme weather events on a day-to-day basis, relief from the elements can mean life or death.
In July, advocates were shocked to learn that the city of LA had received almost $2.5 million for cooling and warming stations in Skid Row. LA Mayor Karen Bass’ office announced in July that there would be four cooling stations this year, set up to help unhoused residents deal with the heat. But as the hottest summer on record dragged on with no new cooling stations in sight, the community and advocates are growing restless.
Why has the city only pulled together two cooling stations, considering the stations are essentially pop-up tents on the sidewalk with a few tables, some chairs and two attendants handing out water?
The mayor’s office did not respond to a question about the reason for the delay. However, internal emails received through a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request show that the warming stations were similarly delayed last winter. Although funding for the stations was approved by the city in October, the one station that did open (there were supposed to be two) did not open till the end of February, after the worst winter storms had already passed.
The warming stations were a precursor to making the program year-round. In the colder months, they would provide amenities like warm drinks, blankets, hand warmers and pop-up heating under a tent. In the hotter months, they would provide things like cold water, sunscreen, shade and cool mist to beat the heat. Year-round, the stations would serve as a space for Skid Row residents to connect with services.
“Unfortunately delays in Skid Row are commonplace but I’ve never seen anything this bad before,” Tom Grode, co-founder of Skid Row Cooling Resources, said in an email. “A delay in something else might be a serious problem, but a delay here means you missed much of summer.”
Councilmember Kevin de León, whose district includes Skid Row, did not return a request for comment about the cooling stations.
A pattern of delays
The glaring lack of resources during extreme weather events only highlights that LA is not prepared to protect unhoused residents from the effects of climate change.
The cooling and warming stations are funded through the over $143 million in Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention funds received from the state. The funding process is mired in bureaucracy:
The LA Mayor proposes the budget, which includes programs funded through HHAP. The budget is reviewed and approved by the City Council, then signed by the mayor. Once approved, the City Administrative Officer, which submits the application for HHAP funds on behalf of the city, issues instructions to the city controller for money to be disbursed to the Los Angeles Housing Department — the implementing agent for the city. The Housing Department then contracts with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the agency that actually disburses the funding.
LAHSA issues a contract amendment with the provider (in this case, Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles), that updates the dollar amount of the contract and the terms. The provider then draws up the contract with the subcontractor who is running the program, Urban Alchemy.
It’s unclear why the delays are so significant, but in the case of last winter, emails indicate that Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles was not able to access the funds for the warming stations until February.
“We don’t have to do with the cooling centers,” said Christopher Yee, spokesperson for LAHSA in response to questions about LAHSA’s funding process, in an email. “The City of LA sets the Skid Row cooling centers up.”
Still only two stations
During the tropical storm that hit LA in August, mutual aid groups and community activists stepped in to provide life-saving resources to unhoused residents — to do what the many of the groups say city and county officials fail to do. For example, members of Water Drop LA distributed tarps and a staff member at LACAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network) cleared the drains in the neighborhood to prevent flooding.
“Ahead of the storm, the Mayor’s Office was in touch with our non-profit partners in Skid Row and citywide to ensure the safety of Angelenos living on the streets,” said spokesperson Gabby Maarse, in an email. “There was also street outreach done to inform Angelenos living on Skid Row of the storm.”
With an almost $2.5 million budget, there are only two cooling stations open in Skid Row and no timeline for the two additional stations to open. The community is left with questions about why the city will not or cannot mobilize in a climate crisis. In an email update to a petition about the cooling stations, petition organizer Kendall Moran wrote that community members were “placated” by assurances that all four cooling stations would be open by the end of July.
“Why should people suffer for our lack of organization and logistics?” said Claudia Oliveira, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council.
One station opened in late February. The other finally opened last Monday. But the numbers from the first station demonstrate a significant demand for resources. There were 90,438 total interactions with the station in Skid Row from February 21 to the end of June, or almost 700 engagements per day.
Advocates and Downtown LA community members say that the cooling stations go beyond providing cold water and shade during the summer heat. They are one of the few places in Skid Row that provide services and referrals with no strings attached to a population that has been repeatedly betrayed by the system.
“One [cooling station] for [the] 5,000 people that are on the streets — it’s not enough” said Oliveira. “We shouldn’t even have four — we should have 10.”
While reporting about the cooling stations, LAPP called Jarvis Emerson, director of Skid Row strategies for the mayor’s office. He texted back asking if he could call back later. When he called back and understood a reporter was the one calling, Emerson immediately hung up.