As the city of Los Angeles has experienced record-breaking rain this winter, frequent cold temperatures, and not enough shelter beds to go around, city officials and a non-profit have been stuck in a blame game about promised life-saving warming centers that by mid-February have yet to materialize, LAMag has learned.
The consequences of this delay may have been deadly. In 2021, 14 unhoused people in L.A. County died of hypothermia. In fact, more people die of hypothermia in L.A. than in New York and San Francisco, with most deaths resulting from cold weather occurring in December and January. And when it rains, people living on city streets are more likely to die.
“It does not need to be very cold for your body to go into hypothermia, when your clothes are wet, when your blanket, when your bedding is wet,” said Victor Hinderliter, director of street-based engagement for the L.A. County Department of Health Services. “The temperatures can really be in the 50s and 60s.”
But this winter was supposed to be different. In early November, former Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office announced that funding had been secured for warming stations, a continuation of the cooling stations offered by the city over the summer amid oppressive heat. According to spokesperson Harrison Wollman, the Warming Hub program would be a 24/7 “heated pop-up space offering warm beverages, safe respite, housing services, and restroom access.”
Over three months later, the warming stations aren’t set up. In a phone interview with LAMag, Jarvis Emerson, who is directing Skid Row strategies for Mayor Karen Bass, repeatedly stated that his office needed to ensure that its partner, the nonprofit Urban Alchemy, was ready to initiate the set up of the stations.
“Our teams can go. We are ready,” Kirkpatrick Tyler, chief of governmental and community affairs at Urban Alchemy and the former director of Skid Row strategies under the Garcetti Administration told LAMag. “If the mayor’s office or anybody else has a different version, we’re welcome to talk to them. But I don’t want to hash that out in an article.”
In response to learning from LAMag that Urban Alchemy said it was ready to launch the project, Emerson indicated that he would be setting up a phone call between the mayor’s office, Urban Alchemy and LAMag to ensure that everyone was on the same page.
Meanwhile, emails between the mayor’s office and the City Administrator’s office from late September to early January contradict the narrative that Urban Alchemy was the true reason for the delay in setting up these life-saving stations. In an email from November 30, Emerson wrote:
“Checking in to see if you have any additional information on the Cooling Station funds. With the dip in temperatures, our partners are ready to go… Remember if you have any extra and you are feeling your inner Santa, we will gladly receive it.”
Despite the availability of an allotment of funds for the warming stations, which was approved in October, by early January, the mayor’s office and the CAO’s office were still trying to nail down a final dollar amount for the contract. Yet the roughly $500,000 budget is a drop in the bucket, with L.A. receiving $55 million in Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention funds from the state. While the city worked to hash out these details, L.A. County was hit with one of the worst winter storms on record.
Beating the Heat on Skid Row
The warming stations are an offshoot of the successful cooling stations project set up in the summer of 2021. The project was created by Skid Row Cooling Resources, a coalition of residents and neighborhood stakeholders in response to the grueling heatwave the city saw in 2020. The set-up was simple: Each cooling station was erected on the sidewalk in the public right-of-way and consisted of two tents for shade, tables, and chairs to sit down and rest, cooling misters, and a water bar fed by a fire hydrant. Each station offered cold water, iced tea, fruit, and provided a small pocket of the street with a sense of community.
“It was unbearable to just walk a couple of blocks in the heat of summer,” said Katherine McNenny, a Skid Row resident who co-founded the project. “So I know that it’s possible that it actually saved lives or saved people from having heat stroke at the very least.”
In its first year, four cooling stations were erected in Skid Row. The project was funded with leftover state Homeless Emergency Aid Program funds and unspent money from the city’s general fund. Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles, the nonprofit that runs the ReFresh Spot in Skid Row, a 24-hour hygiene center with bathrooms and showers, contracted with Urban Alchemy to staff the stations 24 hours a day.
By all accounts, the project was a massive success.
“There were like 6,000 engagements within the first couple of days,” said Kirkpatrick Tyler. “And that was folks just coming to just sit under the tent, to get food or water or tea or what have you.”
Not only did the cooling stations provide respite during the heat of the day, staff at Urban Alchemy also offered harm reduction by providing the overdose-reversing inhalant Narcan, contraceptives, and facemasks, and by giving residents a sense of safety.
“Urban Alchemy staff were saying that sometimes women asked to sleep around the canopies at night, just to feel safe,” said McNenny.
Despite the success of the pilot, in its second year, the number of cooling stations was cut down to two. According to budget documents from the CAO, the funding for the second year was $388,822, or a little over half of what the program received the first year.
“I was very unhappy,” said Tom Grode, a member of the Skid Row Improvement Coalition and one of the founders of Skid Row Cooling Resources. “So you’re telling me this is 100% dependent on money? There are volunteers running around all over the place down in Skid Row. To me, it was a very bad example of leadership.’
By its second year, the cooling stations were “like a machine,” said McNenny, and some of the original founders were no longer involved. When asked about the warming stations opening, she told LAMag that it was the first time she’d heard about it.
Months of Delays
In a January 12 meeting of Skid Row service providers, those present described trying to bring unsheltered residents — including one man in his 70s who arrived soaked to the bone — indoors during the torrential rain and cold. In the same meeting, Emerson told them that the mayor’s office was still working to open the warming stations.
They are still not open. In a follow-up email to LAMag, Emerson wrote that the mayor’s office and Urban Alchemy could not get on a call together because of scheduling conflicts. He added that the warming stations (which he now called “climate stations”) would be open by February 23 and provide “both warming and cooling services.”
These climate stations are slated to run for three months. There will be two locations, officially open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. but staffed 24 hours a day.
“It’s scandalous to make an announcement that something is about to happen, when everybody knows that in Skid Row during the winter, people die, period,” said Grode. “People die. They die when it’s rainy and it’s 42 degrees. So [promising] something called warming hubs is like — there’s an earthquake, but the FEMA trucks don’t show up with food. So people starve to death.”
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