The original Skid Row cooling stations had colorful, communal seating and plants — like a pocket park or outdoor café on the sidewalk. There were even music and art activities at one location. Community members decorated their own wooden fans so they could walk away with their “own personal cooling resource,” said Tom Grode, co-founder of Skid Row Cooling Resources.

Now, local advocates say that creative grassroots energy is gone.

“Now it’s just like, shade for the staff,” Grode said. “No one else gets shade, no one’s able to sit anywhere, and they just hand you a cold thing of water.”

The cooling stations are pop-up canopies with tables and chairs placed on the sidewalk, with staff from Urban Alchemy, the group contracted by the city to manage the cooling stations, serving cold water and other drinks or snacks if available.

Although the cooling stations are providing water, advocates say they are not providing shade or even a place to sit. In the past, the stations dedicated at least one pop-up canopy to shade tables and chairs for people to sit down and escape the brutal summer sun. Now, not only is there no place to sit down, but the tents only provide shade for the contracted staff who manage the cooling stations, according to advocates who are familiar with the stations.

Only three stations for all of Skid Row

As of Monday, there are now three cooling stations open in Skid Row: one across from the ReFresh Spot, Skid Row’s hygiene center, that has been open since late February; one on San Pedro between 6th and 7th St.; and one on 5th and San Pedro St. Four stations were supposed to be active by the end of July. For reasons that are unclear, until August 21 only one station was active.

“It’s better than nothing — better late than never,” said Jeff, a Skid Row resident, of the new station at 5th and San Pedro, though he wishes downtown services were “a little bit more organized.” 

“So yeah, you kind of know — they put a sign up that says, yeah, the cooling station is gonna be here on such and such day.”

Skid Row Cooling Resources was formed by residents and stakeholders in summer 2021 and was an immediate hit. While other neighborhoods in Los Angeles have libraries and community centers that can serve as cooling centers, Skid Row as a neighborhood lacks these basic resources. The beauty of the cooling stations was in their simplicity: they could “pop up” when needed. And because cooling stations existed on the sidewalk in the public-right-of-way, they were open and inclusive — people could come and go freely without conditions or judgment.

A cooling center in 2021 – a far cry from those that exist today. Photo by Katherine McNenny.

People were “treated with dignity,” said co-founder Katherine McNenny in an interview last month. This caused a ripple effect in the community: Urban Alchemy started asking people what they needed and carrying Narcan to reverse overdoses. “Then Homeless Healthcare, they’re passing out condoms, and LAHSA (the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) was bringing food, and a whole bunch of other stuff started stacking up with these canopies too — because folks were feeling comfortable there.”

Joy, a Skid Row resident, is happy that there’s a cooling station at 5th and San Pedro this year.

“I like it, because it’s been very hot. And so it helps keep everyone hydrated,” she said. “They have Kool-Aid for people. But I like the fact that they have ice cold water. And they don’t discriminate. You can go up and get as many as you want.”

Access to drinking water is a major issue in Skid Row with organizations like Water Drop LA delivering over 2,000 gallons of water every Sunday.

“There’s so much need”

“There’s so much need,” said Danny Park of Skid Row People’s Market. In the cooling stations’ first year, his business contracted with Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles to provide iced tea and watermelon. The tea was extremely popular, according to Grode, but HHLA did not continue the contract the following year.

The stations also had the goal of reducing plastic waste. By tapping into fire hydrants in collaboration with the LA Department of Water and Power to create a water bar, they could provide clean, filtered water without using water bottles. On Wednesday, the two stations on San Pedro were handing out bottled water.

The lack of shade this year is just one more puzzling development in a summer of conflicting information and unexplained delays. The main problem, Grode said, is that “you cannot ask a straight question and get a straight answer.”

Community members who were instrumental in creating Skid Row Cooling Resources were “iced out” of the process, said McNenny. According to Grode, it wasn’t from lack of trying.

Last spring, multiple members of the group reached out to Mayor Karen Bass’s office to set up a planning meeting  for summer 2022. That meeting never materialized. 

Next thing they knew, it was June and the number of cooling stations were cut in half.

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

Phoenix Tso is a journalist with a passion for hyperlocal storytelling. She is usually on the search for coffee, new food to try, or a nature walk.