This story was originally published by Prism.
Ten days after Hurricane Hilary passed through Los Angeles, Alex Cameron’s personal belongings were finally dry. Residing on a quiet sidewalk next to a supermarket, the longtime Mid City resident felt fortunate to receive wooden pallets from a mutual aid group to keep his tent above street level. During the first hours of downpour, which brought more rain in Los Angeles than on any other August day on record, Cameron sat dry inside his home. But by the afternoon, a leak sprang from a damaged pipe attached to the side of the supermarket, submerging many of his personal belongings in rain and flood water.
“This thing poured like Niagara Falls onto my roof,” he said. “I had to fight against the water pressure. I got soaked, but I was able to stay warm in at least one part [of my home].”
Now, less than a month after Hilary passed through California as a tropical storm, Los Angeles is anxious to find ways to prepare and care for unhoused Angelenos who are at the front line of natural disasters.
Tropical Storm Hilary was the first of its kind to make landfall in Los Angeles in 84 years. For Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, the bouts of unpredictable weather over the last several years—including last winter’s storms that flooded the Los Angeles River—raises the question of just how dated the city’s emergency response protocols are.
“Knowing that these things were coming and … seeing the lack of action by the city and the gaps within the city response was just frustrating and disappointing,” Hernandez said. “I don’t want to have those situations anymore because it’s our fault for not being able to step up as a city.”
Representing Los Angeles’ Council District 1, which comprises Chinatown, Highland Park, and other riverside and hillside neighborhoods, Hernandez responded to Hilary on Aug. 22 with a motion that the City Council directs the Emergency Management Department to report back on the threshold for Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activation, including the number of days in advance of a potential emergency the EOC can be activated. The motion also asks for more transparency from the Emergency Management Department on the process that occurred to activate shelters to serve unhoused Angelenos during Hurricane Hilary.
Hernandez hopes that her motion will engender more urgency in emergency procedures.
“I hope this report shows proactive steps and solutions that we can implement beforehand or some policies that we can update,” she said. “[Right now] we have to reach certain levels of crises or waters or calls before different levels of response are activated. When we know these emergencies are coming, we shouldn’t have to wait for them to increase at those levels in order to start setting up beds.”
Hernandez, who assumed office in December 2022 with a promise to radically change how resources and housing are distributed to people experiencing homelessness, now waits for her motion to be reviewed by Los Angeles’ Public Safety and Housing committees before it goes to the full council for a vote.
Organizers argue that the system set in place for emergencies operates too slowly, including the bureaucratic process to expedite solutions.
“I know there’s some convoluted bureaucracy about who has control over the shelter system and which departments each council district has to ask to be able to open shelters, but for an emergency like this, that part of the bureaucracy should be overhauled to make sure that no one is weathering the conditions of a storm without any protection,” said Elise Dang, an organizer with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), a grassroots organization advocating for affordable housing, self-determination, and the cultural integrity of Chinatown.
Dang surmised with fellow CCED volunteers that their best option going into the storm was to keep their neighbors as dry as possible on the streets instead of relying on bed availability. In Los Angeles, where more than 45,000 people are experiencing unsheltered homelessness on any given day, the city ultimately activated only eight total emergency shelters by the time the storm was in full force. This meant that fewer than 400 cumulative beds were available across these sites for the roughly 75,000 unhoused people in the city.
Donations and fundraising allowed CCED to mobilize and help Chinatown residents and bordering neighbors after the storm. Dang cites organizations in nearby Little Tokyo and Downtown for donations of tarps and tents. The organization’s restaurant partners also provided hot meals before and after the storm. However, even longstanding restaurants found it unsustainable to meet the increase in new people who waited outside their doors for food and the restroom after the storm. While grabbing a meal at CCED’s restaurant partner Hop Woo, Dang learned from owner Judy Chen that it was getting difficult to provide immediate support at the scale that was needed because she also had to manage a narrow profit margin due to a $25,000 monthly rent.
Dang expressed frustration over the scant support from the city during and after the hurricane.
“Ideally, we have a full decommodification of housing in Los Angeles so that people who are living outside of a home are housed during the storm and post-storm, but the city is obviously not going to do that,” Dang said. “But there’s plenty of spaces like libraries, the school gyms, park recreation centers, and public spaces that have enough room, and the city definitely has the funding to make sure that no one gets sick from the storm and no one loses all of their stuff.”
In Los Angeles’ Palms and West Los Angeles neighborhoods, thousands of unhoused residents were waiting with limited engagement from outreach workers about available beds. Ndindi Kitonga, a teacher, community organizer, and founder of Palms Unhoused Mutual Aid (PUMA), observed an abject lack of immediate response from the city. During her outreach to residents inside motels as a part of Mayor Karen Bass’ Inside Safe program, she met residents who wanted to harbor their friends on the street in their rooms at the risk of losing their interim housing.
“Unhoused people organized better and harder than the city did,” Kitonga said. “We also put a call out on social media and got a lot of funds and donations. Our communities are strong, and they care, and they want to participate. I don’t think the city … realizes how much people in LA really care.”
Various staff members of Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky, who represents areas that PUMA serves, did not respond to a request for comment.
PUMA typically engages with 200-300 unhoused Angelenos on a weekly basis through distributions and outreach, which is how individuals such as Cameron can rely on the group for emergency supplies like tarps and wooden pallets. Although they see new faces every time, Kitonga notes that many of them are queer youths, seniors, veterans, and Black residents.
“[PUMA] wants to not only think about meeting people’s material needs, but also changing social relations and having a different way of being that’s not predicated on market-based housing or certain people being worthy in society to receive things and other people not,” Kitonga said. “It is a climate justice issue. It is also a racial justice issue.”
In the days after Hilary passed through Los Angeles’ Mid City and Westside neighborhoods, PUMA helped to replace water-damaged tents and tarps. The group also mobilized with Inside Starving, a coalition of community groups organizing for more humane, trauma-informed care within Inside Safe, after learning that the city had intended to keep their sweep schedule for the Tuesday morning after the storm. The coalition urged City Council offices to downgrade their sweeps for the week with success.
“They do respond to a little pressure, but they offer the bare minimum,” Kitonga said.
Hurricane Hilary arrived during what is typically California’s driest time of year, which has made August the peak of the state’s fire season. Although the unexpected rainfall may have delayed these fires, some Cal Fire experts emphasize that danger remains and that these uncommon storms are the exception, not the norm. Amid unprecedented environmental disasters spurred by climate change, summers have become an excruciating time for housing-insecure Angelenos.
Cameron hopes that Hilary will be a wake-up call.
“I stay in this area because it’s what I know … I feel safe, and it’s cozy, but sometimes it feels like California is the most unkind state,” he said.
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