SACRAMENTO — The wind on the American River was blowing the rain nearly sideways. Just two nights before, a nearby tree toppled onto a woman, killing her as she slept. Through the flap of a makeshift tent, Jose Reyes, 50, peered into the whipping downpour as cold water pelted his leaky tarp and sluiced down the rusty bed frame he was using as ballast. His sleeping bag was soaked. So were his socks and pant legs.
Behind him, a young woman nibbled wet Pringles, her bare feet slender and pale against the mud beneath them. Mr. Reyes — part of a homeless encampment that has occupied this stretch of parkway for years in Sacramento — said it had been days since they rested.
“I’ve just been paying attention to the wind,” he said early Monday. “Wondering which tree will crack next.”
From rural Sonoma County to the celebrity enclave of Montecito, a brutal parade of atmospheric rivers has tested California’s infrastructure and endurance. Streets have flooded, levees have failed, mudslides have closed highways and wind gusts have knocked out electricity for days. At least 17 people have died since late December.
But few have faced as stark a challenge as the more than 170,000 people who are homeless in California. The state not only has the nation’s largest population of homeless residents, but unlike in colder locales, nearly 70 percent of them sleep in tents, vehicles or public open spaces. Outreach workers in recent days have found them huddling in underpasses and riverbeds, in parks and on beaches.
In Ventura County, firefighters rescued at least 14 people in heavy rain on Monday when record flooding in the Ventura River engulfed a homeless encampment. In Sacramento County, officials said, at least two people — Steven Sorensen, 61, and Rebekah Rohde, 40, a member of the American River encampment — were killed outdoors in separate incidents over the weekend when huge, storm-weakened trees fell onto their tents.
Matthew Z. Fowle, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who has been tracking mortality among unhoused people, said that he had sampled about half of the 50 or so large counties that record the relevant information. Between 2015 and 2020, he said, the mortality rate related to extreme heat or cold more than doubled to about 80 per 100,000 homeless people.
In California, advocates for homeless people say that too many residents are forced to live on the streets because of an acute shortage of shelter space and affordable housing, even as the state funnels billions of dollars toward solving the problem. But they also blame a severe lack of mental health programs and temporary housing that would encourage more people to come indoors — and stay there.
Homeless campers along the American River Parkway remain dry at most times of the year in Sacramento but encounter peril in hard rains or when melted snow rushes down from the Sierra Nevada foothills, filling reservoirs and prompting dam releases that flood low-lying encampments.
Park rangers try to warn and evacuate as many homeless people as they can, though plenty insist on staying. Some say they feel unsafe in group shelters. Some have pets that they cannot bear to leave and that cannot be accommodated. Some fear exposure to Covid-19. Some do not want to leave their belongings behind, or they resent curfews and strict sobriety requirements.
“A lot of people in our shelter are fresh out of prison,” said Steve Andert, 61, an amputee in Sacramento who had left a facility for the homeless early on Monday. People unaccustomed to inmates are frightened enough to want to stay away, he added.
On Monday, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said it had met with more than 400 representatives of community agencies and nonprofits across California to connect homeless people and other vulnerable groups with resources and shelters. Outreach workers in some cities say that the additional effort is sorely needed.
“The city and the county have failed to meet people — to provide emergency shelter that actually meets people’s needs,” said Talya Husbands-Hankin, who runs the homeless advocacy organization Love and Justice in the Streets in Oakland, Calif. On Monday, she was handing out hot coffee, sandwiches and tarps at encampments in the city.
“As a result of that, people are left to fend for themselves in extremely unsafe circumstances,” Ms. Husbands-Hankin said. “The storm really exposes the bigger issue, which is that living outside without shelter is just not safe.”
Just outside of an Oakland encampment known as Wood Street, once among the largest in the Bay Area, debris and trash bags floated in ankle-deep waters. Residents have been evicted over the past several months and have moved onto neighboring streets, one of which is now partially flooded. Further evictions had been planned for Monday but were temporarily halted by a federal judge, who cited the severe weather in his ruling.
Officials in Alameda County and the City of Oakland said that outreach teams were visiting encampments across the region. They said they had increased their number of emergency shelter beds, and that there were still some available. The city said that animal services could provide overnight shelter for pets.
Ramona Choyce, 44, said that she did not believe people should be forced into shelters. “What is shelter?” she rhetorically asked as she waded through the water just outside the Wood Street encampment, sorting recyclables that she planned to sell so that she could buy propane. Ms. Choyce said that she had four dogs, and valued the private space of her R.V. “I can’t just give them away,” she added of her pets. “They’re my kids.”
In Los Angeles, where the newly elected mayor declared a state of emergency to address the city’s homelessness crisis, advocates worried particularly about Skid Row, a fixture of homeless encampments located downtown. Among the 4,400 homeless people there, less than half identify as sheltered.
“Most of them have years of street life and are pretty adept at surviving on the streets, but this cold and wet weather increases the likelihood of people dying from exposure, and that’s something we’re all very concerned about,” said Mike Arnold, the president and C.E.O. of the Midnight Mission, a long-established shelter in the area.
With flash flood warnings in Los Angeles County, which has about 70,000 people who are homeless, local organizations were handing out rain gear, ponchos and even tents, which they usually do not distribute for fear that recipients will avoid seeking shelter. But a shortage of temporary beds has left limited options, a problem exacerbated by the coronavirus as well as the winding down of a state initiative that had provided hotel and motel rooms during the pandemic.
The mission, which has about 270 beds and, like most shelters in the area, is close to capacity, has been trying to figure out how to quickly add temporary canopies to its outdoor courtyard to offer refuge, albeit unheated.
As California braced for the week, north to south, the race to protect people living outside raised larger questions, including the existential matter of how long the place and its people can endure the current battering.
At an Oakland shelter run by Omni Commons, a community nonprofit, Cy Brown said that he decided to come inside after sleepless nights spent shivering in his drenched clothes.
“That rain was really, really cold, bone-chilling rain. I couldn’t find nowhere to hide,” said Mr. Brown, who is in his 60s. He said he was now suffering from pneumonia and frostbite on his toes. “I stayed under a tree, but it just kept pounding me,” he said of the rain.
On Monday morning, Mr. Brown was taking refuge along with about a dozen others inside the emergency shelter, a dimly lit ballroom where the shapes of sleeping bodies could be made out, swaddled in blankets on inflatable mattresses.
Silver Zhan, a volunteer at the shelter, said that for many, the deluge had been overwhelming: “We’re Californians in drought. We don’t know how to respond to rain.”