More homeless shelter space needed as cold temps hit Southern California

People living near the Santa Ana River Trail move their belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works
People living near the Santa Ana River Trail move their belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works "sweep" on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Authorities say their aim is to move people out of the way of coming storms. Many homeless individuals have to scramble to find shelter and storage for their personal items to avoid being arrested for camping and having their belongings and animals confiscated.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC

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On Sunday night, staff at the Grace Resources homeless shelter in Lancaster pushed office desks and dining room chairs aside to make room for extra sleeping cots.

“We’re fitting people in wherever we can,” said Jeremy Johnson, director of operations.

About 120 people escape the nightly frost at the shelter in the Antelope Valley where overnight temperatures can fall into the teens during the winter months.

Homeless services providers across Southern California are preparing for a wet and cold winter.

Emergency winter shelters began operating early in Los Angeles this month. Two weeks ago, Glendale city officials opened up an overnight shelter with 80 beds at a warehouse.

In Orange County, starting Monday, 400 homeless people will be given a mat to pass the night at the National Guard Armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana.

The Armories first opened as nightly homeless shelters in 1987 but only when temperatures dropped below 40 degrees or during 50-degree rainstorms. They now operate nightly from November through March or April, depending on county funding. 

Although Orange County plans to build a permanent year-round homeless multi-service center in Anaheim, it won’t be ready until late next year, which is why the temporary shelters at the Armories will stay open for now.  

The looming question is what to do when El Nino storms drench Orange County during the day.

Larry Hanes, executive director of Mercy House, which operates the nightly shelters for the county, said a staffing plan is in place for a 24-7 operation, if needed.

“All we need is permission from our funders, and permission from the National Guard Armory or the ability to use some other space if we need to provide some sort of lodging or shelter from the rain during the day, ” he said.

The Armory shelters operated around the clock once before in December 2010 when Orange County officials declared a state of emergency in preparation for a string of hail, rain and wind storms passing through the area.

Orange County officials are also in negotiations with the Orange County Transportation Authority over the potential purchase of a bus depot in Santa Ana that could be used as a temporary homeless service center.

Meanwhile, staff at the Grace Resources homeless services center in Lancaster hope to move into old medical buildings by December 15 to provide more sleeping cots to homeless people seeking shelter this winter.

The Glenchur and Muncie out buildings at the old High Desert Medical facility will shelter up to 167 people through March 31. Los Angeles County supervisors approved an emergency proclamation in October to relax some building codes to allow a quicker move in.

Furniture must be moved in; paint and repairs to the building are underway; computers and phones need to be set-up; winter coats are needed.

Johnson said he hopes homeless people can be sheltered for the night at the new facilities by January 1, especially as winter nights in the desert get brutally cold.

“Here in the High Desert, it’s not hard to drive around and find little tent cities,” he said. “It’s just not an uncommon occurrence here.”