It’s Low Tide for California’s Homeless

For California’s most vulnerable, an influx of rain brings an influx of consequences. Without shelter, the homeless population faces the foreseeable challenge of surviving in extreme weather.

Anika Bhutani and Katherine Wilcox

After several weeks of intense rainfall, Californians are finally able to walk outside their front doors without onslaughts of heavy rain. While the rain only lasted for a few weeks, the amount of water brought by the rain was enough to bring a partial end to the severity of our near-constant California drought. 

So congratulations, California! We’ve gone from extreme drought to simply severe drought! 

All joking aside, the recent rain hitting California has been a big positive. After years of reporting the absence of rain and the groundwater reserves have been running too low, these storms have made our hills greener and our creeks greater in volume—allowing us to hope that the future of our climate will be a bit brighter. 

However, despite these positives, others do not see the rain as a positive. The homeless population in California, the highest of any state, is  the most vulnerable during bouts of extreme weather like rain.

The homeless face a foreseeable challenge: without shelter, falling trees and cold rain water present a deadly combination that can result in sickness and high casualty. Damp and cold conditions bring influenza and infections to the 66% of homeless Californians who live on the streets.

Furthermore, viruses and bacteria mutate and spread more rapidly when in contact with water, further causing these illnesses to infect communities faster. Since December, at least 17 homeless in Sonoma County have died because of rain-related incidents, a number that will likely continue to rise if we receive more rain in the coming winter and spring months. 

Additionally, shelters for the homeless in cities are not a reliable source for housing or supplies. As Bob Erlenbusch tells Cal Matters, “People have to leave their belongings behind. Others don’t know about the centers, or don’t have a way to get there.” 

Typically during storms, the homeless take shelter under bridges or in parks to protect themselves. However, when large cities like San Francisco forcefully remove (aka sweep) homeless people in embankments, they are often fully exposed to rain as a consequence of not having a place to stay. This further infringes on their vulnerability as homeless people are not only stranded outside to deal with harsh conditions, but they are also deprived of the means to survive in terrible weather.

On the bright side, California’s state and local governments are pushing for help in face of harsh circumstances. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has provided over 400 community groups to help supply the homeless and other communities that need it. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom has also budgeted $202 million to help ramp up flood protections across California, with hopes that it will protect the homeless population.

Though California seems to be pulling itself out of high waters this winter, it is uncertain how long it can sustain unpredictable weather, especially when its most vulnerable are in peril. While the rain may have helped hydrate our water reserves and local ecosystems, another few years of rapid transitions between rainy and dry seasons could negatively impact the homeless as they continue to be on the front lines of the ramifications that accompany severe weather.