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Notoriously hard-to-open homeless shelter welcomes people out of extreme weather

File: Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter has 110 beds. It's the only homeless shelter in the Antelope Valley.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter shut down this past summer, citing funding problems.

Los Angeles officials are opening up a second winter shelter in the Antelope Valley in the hopes of bringing more homeless services to an area left reeling after the closure of a shelter earlier this year.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on funding a range of emergency shelter programs for the upcoming cold season at their meeting Tuesday, including a 24-hour space at the High Desert MAAC, a county-owned space near Lancaster. 

"Lancaster's only emergency shelter actually closed around August," said Raquel Ziegler, crisis housing coordinator for the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority. "There's very limited shelter in that area and it gets extremely cold."

The Antelope Valley has some of the tougher temperature extremes in L.A. County, with hot summer days and winter nights that can dip into freezing temperatures. It also saw one of the biggest increases in its homeless population this past year, up 50 percent to 4,559. 

LAHSA has already opened up a winter shelter in the Armory in Palmdale to try to meet the need. The second shelter, which unlike typical winter shelters, would remain open all day, would add another 85 beds this winter for adults. 

Families will be provided vouchers to rent out motel rooms, said Hector Acosta of the Salvation Army of the Antelope Valley, which has been chosen to operate the proposed shelter. 

LAHSA officials are also hoping the winter shelter season will be extended through the end of March, with most shelters currently expected to close February 28. Overall, there will be about 14,000 beds scattered through the city and county for the season.

Winter shelters are notoriously hard to open up—they run for only months, making logistics like finding staff, finding an appropriate site, and placating neighbors difficult.

In Service Planning Area 7, which covers southeastern cities like Whittier, Bell, and South Gate, officials have not been able to locate a spot for a shelter after their intended site, the Montebello Armory turned up high levels of lead. Last year's site, at the Bell Armory, has become a year-round shelter for homeless. 

Acosta said the new site in in the Antelope Valley has been somewhat challenging in the typical ways, but is on track to open this week or next. 

 "But I'm hearing we should anticipate something with transportation," he said. "Once the community gets wind of the routes and people coming on the public bus, then you start getting some resistance."

Acosta said his organization will have community liaisons to channel community concerns and solicit volunteers, food, and other help. 

"We're trying to make it easy to come here," he said. "Not a lot of rules, not a lot of barriers to coming here."

While challenging, officials say winter shelters are a good way to not only protect homeless people from the elements during the most extreme weather months, but also serve as a first entry into seeking help for many.