Deadly winter forecast has homeless on edge

David J. Austin knows all about El Niño.

“They say it’s coming in January,” he says.

Austin, 67, reads the paper. He knows the National Weather Service is forecasting a “Super El Niño” this winter and, with it, one of the wettest years on record.

If torrential rains come, Austin plans to pack up the tent he sleeps in on the banks of the Santa Ana River and head to higher ground.

He might lose some possessions, but he’s more interested in staying dry. His advice to others who sleep in flood-prone spots – and who think they can ride out the stormy season – is simple:

“Get your masks and your snorkels, because you are going to be underwater.”

Austin chuckles as he says this, but homeless advocates say El Niño is no joke.

For thousands of homeless people in the county who sleep in outdoor spots that can get wet – or even flood – El Niño is a potential killer.


Weather models are showing a 60 percent chance of above-average rainfall in Southern California, and many experts believe the coming El Niño will be one of the three most severe to hit the region since 1950.

A climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has said the rains will roll through the region “one storm after another, like a conveyor belt.”

If those predictions hold, the most vulnerable people in the county figure to be the 440 homeless men and women who, according to a recent county assessment, have created makeshift homes on the banks of the Santa Ana River.

A potential alternative for them is a bed in one of the National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana that this month transitioned to seasonal homeless shelters, an annual cold weather program that happens regardless of rain forecasts.

But the combined capacity of the armories, which last week was reduced to about 300 beds because of fire hazards, is no match for the estimated 2,200 people (about half the county’s homeless population) who have no access to any shelter. They figure to be scrambling if and when severe weather arrives.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted to spend as much as $500,000 to expand temporary emergency shelter for the homeless if that’s needed this winter. The plan could involve churches, warehouses and other locations, said Karen Roper, director of Orange County Community Services.

But the danger posed to local homeless people by El Niño isn’t limited to dying in a flood. People sleeping outdoors during the rainy season face increased risk of hypothermia if they happen to get wet when the temperature is low.

Paul Leon, a public health nurse and director of the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit that helps the homeless, said a quarter of the estimated 400 people who sleep in Santa Ana’s Civic Center area could be in danger if the winter is as wet as predicted.

Leon said that in the winter of 2007, eight homeless people in Orange County died, four of them on the street, mostly from exposure.

And last year – a notoriously dry year by historical standards – two homeless people in Costa Mesa died in bad weather, he said.

Leon noted that many homeless people are older and suffer from chronic physical or mental health issues that tend to make them vulnerable when the weather is less than ideal.

“It’s almost over for them because they get wet and cold,” he said. “They just can’t tolerate two days of wet weather.”

Even homeless people who sleep in cars could find themselves swept up in an El Niño-fueled deluge.


The likelihood of a super wet winter is prompting a coalition of community groups, officials from county and city agencies, and the local American Red Cross to work on an El Niño disaster plan.

The goal of the plan is to come up with options for housing the homeless if and when the rains hit.

“The real question is resources,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, the nonprofit that operates the cold weather shelter program at the armories. “Where do you go? What do you do? That is where the concern is.”

Roper said that 211OC, the county’s central clearinghouse for social service referrals and information, will be a key partner in connecting the homeless to available resources in the event of an El Niño crisis.

Still, many who advocate for the homeless remain wary.

Allyson Crosby, who works with Leon as director of program operations for Illumination Foundation, is skeptical that there will be enough resources to provide adequate shelter for the county’s homeless.

Her organization, she said, is collecting money to buy ponchos and tarps to hand out to people who don’t find shelters in the armories or any temporary locations.

“In all honesty, there’s no place for those folks to go,” said Crosby, who is well known at the Civic Center for her outreach efforts.

In recent years, Crosby said, it’s become difficult to enlist churches – a traditional stopgap – to participate in providing emergency cold weather shelter.

“I doubt there’s going to be much of a galvanizing response from churches just because of El Niño.”

And there is this reality: Some people prefer being on the street to the rules of a shelter, or the potential theft of their stuff.

Several of the homeless in Santa Ana’s Civic Center area said they will adjust to whatever El Niño brings and survive – as they do every day.

“We know that there’s nothing else,” said Larry “Smitty” Smith, 60, who has been homeless for 18 months since his release from prison. “We find shelter wherever we can.”

Smith belongs to the Civic Center Roundtable, a grass-roots group that organizes the homeless around civic action.

On rainy days, he expects the homeless will fill every public building nearby, such as the library, and any fast-food restaurant that allows them to linger.

At night, they can find dry quarters in an emptied state-owned parking structure, Smith said.

“There’s no point in complaining. We’re just survivors.”


The last El Niño weather system that hit California caused nearly $54 million in damage in Orange County, with the biggest punch landing in February 1998. At least one storm-related death was tracked that year when a Laguna Beach man died in a mudslide.

But 17 years ago, a large homeless population wasn’t entrenched along the riverbed, county spokeswoman Jean Pasco said.

“It’s a different phenomenon this time,” she said. “They’re setting up cities.”

Tents and tarps dot both sides of the river, several visible through Orange and Anaheim to where the river bends at the 91 toward Yorba Linda, said Shannon Widor, public information officer for OC Public Works.

The department is responsible for maintaining the county’s 380 miles of flood control channels. County workers conduct periodic sweeps along the riverbed to remove debris that might clog an outlet and cause flooding.

The homeless are typically given a few days’ warning and asked to remove their belongings. Personal items left behind that aren’t clearly trash must by law be stored for as long as 90 days for the owners to claim.

“We try to be respectful,” Widor said, adding that outreach workers from the county’s health care agency also visit the homeless in the riverbed.

“We know it’s tough for these folks and they don’t have a place to go. We get it.”

Safety is the main concern now, he said.

“We’re going out there to clean up. But, really, we’re urging them to get out of the flood channels. Almost always, they will leave.”

But then, always, they return once the sweeps are completed.

Some tent cities even have names, such as Angel Camp in the vicinity of the Big A sign at Angel Stadium.


Austin, who said he is a Vietnam War veteran suffering from periodic episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder, has been living along the river for eight years. He planted a big American flag in the rocks near his tent at his present location, north of Angel Camp.

Next to an abandoned couch he managed to roll down to his spot, Austin has fashioned makeshift tables from a wooden cable spool and pieces of plywood resting on plastic buckets.

Except for the sound of occasional gunfire from the nearby sheriff’s department training facility, and the wild dancing of a riverbed tenant across the water, it’s a peaceful spot on a mild Tuesday afternoon. Ducks swim by in calm water that’s far enough below Austin’s tent to pose no threat – for now.

The worst weather Austin said he has experienced in his years along the river arrived in September with Hurricane Linda. A wall of rushing water sent him yelling for his campmates to scramble.

He pointed to a spot several feet below the lip of the embankment where the water rose.

“It didn’t get any further up, but it was pretty scary,” he said between spoonfuls of Ben & Jerry’s strawberry cheesecake ice cream.

“With that El Niño, it will just breach the bank.”

A married couple who live two tents down from Austin hope to leave soon.

Kent Godeby, the husband, said they ended up homeless when he lost his job three years ago and they couldn’t remain in their Garden Grove apartment. They were on the streets in Fullerton until settling at the river in 2013.

Godeby, 42, found work again this year as a tow truck driver.

He was buttoning up his dark blue work shirt as he sat in a lawn chair outside his tent, where his wife remained hidden from view.

Once they have enough money saved, “we’re gone,” Godeby said.

“As far as being homeless goes, this isn’t the worst place in the world. But I’d still rather have a house.”

While the Godebys are eager to leave their homeless state behind, others are resigned to living on the streets.

Donald Haylock, who said he worked for the county health care agency years ago, has been living at the Civic Center for 25 years. He sleeps in his car.

Haylock, 65, said that even though his sons have asked him to come live with them, he doesn’t want to be a burden.

His El Niño survival plan:

“I just have to deal with it until it goes away.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-7793 or

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