L.A. River's Homeless Will Try to Beat the 45 MPH El Niño Torrent

Tyrone Hart, the "River Thug," has lived in the L.A. River for 12 years. A handmade memorial at left was swept away by a Sept. 15 downpour.
Tyrone Hart, the "River Thug," has lived in the L.A. River for 12 years. A handmade memorial at left was swept away by a Sept. 15 downpour.
Erik Skindrud

On a recent Saturday, Tyrone Hart used a catheterlike tube to fill a 5-gallon container with spring water coaxed from beneath the Los Angeles River.

Was it safe to drink?

“The springs are connected to the aquifer,” he said. “It's never made me sick.”

Hart has lived in the riverbed opposite Griffith Park for more than a decade.

He knows a thing or two about the place. For drinking water, he takes advantage of a geologic quirk — the massive aquifer underlying the San Fernando Valley that is forced to the surface by bedrock at the Glendale Narrows. Hart’s water tastes better than the municipal product his city neighbors drink.

Survivors like Hart challenge perceptions about homeless people. He also helps answer an important question that is now bubbling to the surface. What effect might a Godzilla El Niño have on the riverbed’s homeless encampments? Although El Niño isn't here yet, thunderstorms are predicted for Wednesday and Thursday, and the river may be in for some action. 

The weather pattern was on the minds of members of the Los Angeles City Council on Sept. 22, when they directed the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to open its emergency winter shelter program early this year, and to keep it open until the rainy season’s end. 

Pineapple Express–driven torrents can reach the same killing speeds as a car, up to 45 miles per hour. When they pose a challenge to river residents, history shows that the people who live in the watercourse will survive. Most also prefer to cope without any shelter’s help, thank you.

“For the most part, they’re very practical people,” said Albert Torres, the city’s senior park ranger in charge of patrolling the river. “They respond to rising waters.”

This year, however, there are more people living in the river than ever, Torres said.

Tent dwellers live directly in the mouths of Los Angeles River drains, where water can be released after downpours.
Tent dwellers live directly in the mouths of Los Angeles River drains, where water can be released after downpours.
Hillel Aron

Friends of the Los Angeles River founder Lewis MacAdams agreed. He thinks close to 100 people now call the riverbed home. MacAdams stood along the river about one-third of a mile from Tyrone's camp last month, considering the El Niño question.

After a pause, MacAdams pointed out something obvious, if paradoxical. The folks camped out in the riverbed, while “homeless,” have made some very cozy homes there.

“I’ve always thought of the river as one of the few places homeless people could go to live,” the activist said. “Some people seem to have adopted the river — and maybe the river has adopted them.”

For his part, Hart never retreats to shelters when the heavens open. He copes as a beachgoer does with rising tides.

“Anytime it rains, we get ready to move,” Hart related. “It can go from your feet to your waist in 45 seconds.”

In 2005, it rained for six days straight, and the floodwaters drove Hart into a willow tree where he clung on for dear life with his two dogs.

Most of the time, though, storms give enough warning for his small community to migrate to the riverbank’s top, where they bed down by the well-used bike path there. One of his neighbors uses a smartphone to keep tabs on weather forecasts, Hart added.

City Ranger Torres said the law gives him the authority to remove residents if they seem to be in harm’s way. He rarely has to, though.

And as Mayor Eric Garcetti ponders spending up to $100 million on housing and other options for the city’s homeless, Torres knows many will avoid any designated housing. Torres and his staff of about 17 regularly pass on warnings when storm clouds loom. But many locals prefer to stay put — or move to higher ground.

“We get a mixed response,” he said. “They don’t want to go (to shelters).”

For his part, Hart cites elbow room as one of the main incentives for living out of doors. From Buffalo, he moved to L.A. 17 years ago after his marriage broke up, and he has lived along the river for about 12 of those. 

“A lot of people sleep on sidewalks — I can’t do that,” he said. “I like camping, I like the solitude.”

On Sept. 15, Hart’s storm plan was tested when a deluge turned the placid Los Angeles stream into a chocolate-gray torrent. He and his neighbors retreated to the top of the riverbank. When the waters receded, a handcrafted memorial for a departed friend had been swept away—as had the thick arundo grass that formerly hid Hart’s tent.

Above the campsite, a glittering disco ball and banner emblazoned with the words "River Thug" remained where Hart had left them, however.

He remains philosophical about the shifting sands under his home.

“Every time it rains, it changes,” he said of the riverbed. “The landscape evolves.”

Erik Skindrud is a writer and editor who enjoys walking along the Los Angeles River.


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