Multiple Agencies Collaborate to Provide Homeless Individuals Shelter Before Tropical Storm

About 65 homeless individuals living in unauthorized areas near the Santa Fe Dam received shelter prior to tropical storm Hurricane Hilary’s landfall in Southern California, thanks to the efforts of multiple local, county and federal agencies.

About 35 law enforcement officers with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, Azusa and Irwindale police departments, along with representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District’s Operations Division and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority were out in full force Aug. 19 to evacuate homeless individuals living in the riverbeds near the dam.

The teams began their main sweep of the area in the morning and throughout the day, urging homeless individuals to seek shelter prior to the impending storm.

“Life-safety is always our priority,” said Trevor Snyder, program manager and homeless encampment liaison with the Corps’ LA District. “The (Corps’) Los Angeles District activated its joint protocol for unsheltered communities, working with multiple resource providers, to ensure the most vulnerable individuals are provided shelter options during this unprecedented storm.”

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The land is owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Individuals living in Corps-owned lands, rivers and basins can be cited for illegal camping and federal trespassing; however, the goal of all agencies involved over the weekend was to get those in need evacuated and into safe locations.

“We are in a once-in-a-lifetime storm, at least in my lifetime coming through California,” said Azusa City Mayor Robert Gonzales. “As it gets to be a tropical storm, it’s still significant and could have significant impacts to the region. I’d rather be prepared for the worst and expect the best.”

The LA County Sheriff’s Department’s HOST, deployed to the area Aug. 17 and began aerial notifications to unhoused individuals in the area, urging them to seek shelter. The HOST team will remain in the area through Aug. 21.

Officers with the Azusa Police Department, along with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District Park Ranger Nick Figueroa, look for homeless individuals living in the riverbeds near Santa Fe Dam Aug. 19 in Azusa, California. Multiple law enforcement agencies collaborated on efforts to evacuate homeless individuals near the dam to safety prior to the impending Hurricane Hilary. USACE PHOTO BY DENA O’DELL

In addition to aerial notifications on a PA speaker from the agency’s helicopter, Sgt. Matthew Coppes, lead operations sergeant for the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s effort, said the team was using all of its department’s resources – from the aerial bureau to its mental evaluation team, mounted horse patrol and off-road all-terrain vehicles to ensure they are able to locate every person living in the riverbed, educate them on the dangers from the storm and assist them with interim housing.

“Right now, we have about 20 personnel that we have broken up into separate teams that cover from the Santa Fe Dam, the spillways – all of the way down through the San Gabriel River, Rio Hondo, Coyote Creek and into the LA River,” he said.

As of Aug. 19, Coppes said his team – in coordination with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority – had contacted about 50 to 60 unhoused individuals, who agreed to accept shelter.

“We are a humanitarian effort. This is what we do,” he said. “We go out there with our civilian outreach personnel to make sure we address everyone that is potentially in a life-threatening area, as far as the impending storm and the high floods. Our effort is to make sure no one dies in the riverbed due to this storm and the rising water levels.”

Gonzales said the biggest take-away is being proactive to ensure everyone’s safety.

“There are folks in the riverbed, that their safety is compromised, so it’s extremely important that we be proactive to protect human lives,” he said. “You and I see it on television, our phones and our computers, but these folks, unfortunately, may not have access to that information, so it’s important for us to let them know this is real; this is coming.

“You also have to remember in the event of emergencies, we may be stuck and not be able to get to these folks … so it’s better to be proactive and get them out of there for their safety, so that our police officers and first responders can handle other emergencies as they arise.”

In addition to the Aug. 19 homeless evacuation mission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepares for storm events year-round and is coordinating with other agencies and counties to keep communities informed about safety in and around Corps-owned and operated dams, levees and basins during this storm event.

The Corps will be monitoring the situation around the clock and that includes staffing dams and channels that may receive water flows this weekend, as well as dispatching a Channel Watch team, should that be needed.

The Corps’ reservoirs in the Los Angels Basin are currently empty, and their full capacity is available to help manage storm runoff from Hurricane Hilary.

Flooding conditions are not anticipated on the major river systems downstream of the Corps’ flood-risk management reservoirs; however localized flooding remains possible on smaller creeks and rivers, along with flash flooding in the deserts of California, Southern Nevada and potentially western Arizona. Recent burn scars in Southern California and Southern Nevada could be subject to mud flows and debris flows.

The Corps encourages the public to heed warnings and recommendations from local law enforcement and emergency responders.

This article is featured in the 2023-2024 edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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