Heavy rain is just one of several winter challenges for a woman named Wendy who sleeps rough along the concrete-lined Los Angeles River that many people know for movie car chase scenes. In addition to the rain, gusty winds have shoved temperatures down, too.
But Wendy has a trick for fighting the cold.
“We have these little miniature buckets. We put candles in them,” she says. “Enough of those, enough candles in the bucket, and it heats the tent. As long as you keep the door shut. You have to have the rain fly over the tent and then the tarp. You don’t have the tarp, hot air just goes out.”
Her fort of tent and tarp is one of about 100 in northeast L.A., on a stretch where dirt and sand piles up on the L.A. River’s flat bottom.
Rain has pounded down on Southern California this week. In Los Angeles County, winter shelters for homeless people have made a couple of thousand extra beds available. But around 32,000 people countywide lack shelter on stormy nights — including Wendy and her partner, a man known on the street as Country. The couple has developed survival tactics to try and stay warm and dry.
Winter shelters are for individuals, not couples and families. They offer little privacy. And like a lot of the social services offered by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a joint project of the city and county, the path they’re on feels challenging and remote.
Wendy and other river dwellers frequently see Monica Alcaraz, from Recycled Resources for the Homeless, a nonprofit based in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood. She tries to connect them to services and housing. More often she’s there with tarps, clothes and blankets.
Last June, Wendy began calling one silty island in the river “home,” just north of the Los Feliz Boulevard overpass.
“There was so much bamboo you couldn’t see through,” she says, a half-smile on her face as she recalls it. “There was so much bamboo and the palm trees. It was beautiful, beautiful. Like a bird sanctuary.”
She says Country taught her to love the quiet and security of the remote island, which they shared with their neighbors Big Jeff, Mexican Ed and Animal. It was easy to forget the river is also an active flood control channel. Until it roared.
Wendy points down to her island, where palm, eucalyptus and other trees stubbornly cling to sandy dirt — and where she found herself clinging to a tree about 20 feet up one rainy night last November.
Cops, firefighters and rangers came around to the island as winter started, and a few times more when storms were coming. They warned Wendy and Country that stormwater draining from the San Fernando Valley can raise the river fast, and by as much as 10 feet.
“But it didn’t,” she says now, plaintively, shaking her head. “Two or three times the water never got that high. So we didn’t think anything of it.”
That rainy November night, the water rose, and fell, rose, and fell. They thought they were safe. But Wendy woke first to a rising flood.
“And I’m like, honey, you need to wake up,” she says. Country told her to zip the tent against the deluge, but the current kept rising. “Next thing I know you can feel it under the tent, and he said, put your shoes on, get your coat, let’s go.”
Unzipping the tent, water ran over her knees, then her hips, speeding up to 35 mph.
“It looked like the Colorado River and I said, I can’t do it,” Wendy says. “He said, yeah you can. I said, baby I can’t, And he said, we gotta get in the tree.”
Neighbors soon joined them there. “We had just enough charge on a cellphone that was in a Ziploc baggie. I had smarts enough to put it in a baggie. And he called 911.”
The Los Angeles Fire Department’s swift water rescuers pulled people from the rushing river 17 times last year, all of them homeless, including Wendy and Country and their two friends. Most of them were right at this spot. City police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department rescue people, too.
Now Wendy calls higher ground home. It’s a noisy spot, crammed between the I-5 freeway and a bike path from which you can see the island.
She says they made a mistake — admittedly, a potentially deadly one — just like anyone can.
“Just because we’re homeless and we don’t have clean clothes on and we’re dirty doesn’t mean we’re bad people, she says. “It doesn’t mean we’re bad people. We’re just people who need someplace to live.”