David Herrmann tweeted Sept. 6 asking for Venmo and CashApp donations to help him pass out water along Skid Row in light of the city’s forecasted heat wave. Later that day, Herrmann rented a U-Haul van to hold over 8,000 bottles of water. The temperature outside on the blacktop of Skid Row was roughly 116 degrees when he passed out water to residents.
As he was handing out water, Herrmann said he noticed a disoriented man walking up to the open window of the rented van.
“He stood there, and we couldn’t figure out why he was staying there. We realized it was the AC,” Herrmann said. “He just closed his eyes and he just like, he was in heaven.”
The weekend of Sept. 6–7 brought extreme heat to LA and across Southern California with temperatures rising up to 120 degrees inland and 105 degrees along the coast. The National Weather Service reported a high of 121 degrees in Woodland Hills, breaking records held in LA, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
According to California Independent Systems Operator, a non-profit that oversees the majority of the state’s electric power systems, the heat wave, in conjunction with the quarantine due to coronavirus, was the catalyst for blackouts across the regional power grid as people strained the electric system with air conditioning and WiFi required to work from home.
Even without rolling blackouts, extreme heat is an existing problem for Angelenos. According to a 2019 study from researchers at USC, an estimated one-third of all LA households are without air-conditioning. This figure does not include LA’s unhoused residents.
Nathan Eshelman, an Eagle Rock resident who handed out frozen water bottles to his local unhoused neighbors, said the heat wave was the hottest he had ever experienced in LA.
“I pastor a church here in the area and have come to know some of my church’s most local homeless,” Eshelman said via email. “On Saturday evening I had my son put some bottles in the freezer so that they would be frozen by Sunday morning. At around 9:15 a.m. we dropped off the frozen bottles to the family on Verdugo [Road] and I was so pleased to see that others had placed frozen bottles around their tent.”
Eshelman said he was familiar with the family and had seen them frequently under the 2 Freeway overpass. According to Eshelman, it is an especially dangerous time for LA’s unhoused population because of the extreme heat.
“We need to do a better job of caring for them,” Eshelman said via email.
Herrmann, who has previously engaged in mutual aid for the unhoused and worked closely with Union Rescue Mission, said the city does not do a good enough job protecting their vulnerable populations.
“This city hasn’t done anything relevant to help homelessness no matter who is in power,” Herrmann said. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Herrmann believes LA’s unhoused population will continue to rise during the pandemic.
Ahmad Chapman, the director of communications at Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), said the rise in evictions and unemployment as a result of the pandemic is causing an increase in the number of people on the street.
“Skid Row has stretched more and more blocks,” Herrmann said. “I live in Redondo Beach and we even have a higher percentage of homeless down here so I know it’s a much bigger number than it was pre-COVID.”
Utilizing temporarily closed malls and convention halls as public cooling centers is one example of a lost opportunity the city could have taken to protect residents, according to Herrmann.
David Kim, a candidate challenging Jimmy Gomez for California’s 34th District, critiqued the city’s cooling centers’ low capacity via Twitter.
As the pandemic rages and protestors call for racial justice, mutual aid efforts — a support system where community members take care of one another through reciprocal exchange of resources such as groceries, food, and money — have grown.
Herrmann said his Twitter audience helped him raise over $1,700, which he used to purchase four pallets of water.
“I didn’t think I’d get that much money that quick but I think during COVID[-19], the people with money are being more generous because they recognize what’s going on,” Herrmann said.
The Eagle Rock Community Fridge (ER Community Fridge), located at 4808 Townsend Ave., received over 1,000 bottles of water the weekend of Sept. 6–7, according to lead volunteers Natalie Epstein and Charlotte Lane Gordon.
Since its establishment Aug. 25, the ER Community Fridge volunteers have stocked food, water, clothing and hygiene kit donations. Epstein said she loves the way anyone can take or leave food in the fridge, citing Instagram as her inspiration for engaging with mutual aid.
“I was reading a lot about creating new ways to support each other and mutual aid is such an empowering way to do that because it just acknowledges the fact that we all need support,” Epstein said.
Epstein said she dislikes the ways many organizers determine what communities need rather than asking the community members of the community directly.
“We have a sign that says ‘What do you need? What groceries do you want?’” Lane Gordon said. “Anyone in the community can put in requests, and then whoever sees it can pick something up. It’s so simple.”
Lane Gordon said the ER Community Fridge is working to partner with local restaurants and a boxed water company to commit to weekly water drop-offs, in addition to local donations.
Amidst the weekend heat, Eshelman said he was pleased to know that someone had already given his unhoused neighbor, Joe, an ice cream cone when his wife went to bring him water.
“That made me happy to know that there are others in the community that are showing love to those that are often invisible or just seen as a nuisance or public health crisis,” Eshelman said.
For more info on the ER Community Fridge, mutual aid and other resources available around NELA, visit our COVID-19 cases and resources page.