Mission residents blame homeless encampments for surge in outdoor fires

Unhoused are also at risk from the worrisome trend, say homeless groups

San Francisco /
Nov.November 11, 2021 08:53 AM
(Getty)
(Getty)

Mission district residents aren’t just imagining it. There really have been more fires in the popular southeastern San Francisco neighborhood since the start of the pandemic.

In 2020, there were 50 percent more fires reported than in 2019, according to Mission Local’s analysis of public data.

Residents are blaming the tent communities that have long existed in the neighborhood and have become even more prevalent since the pandemic. A San Francisco Fire Department representative told the blog that “our members in the field” had also found many of the fires could be attributed to the city’s encampments.

Homeless groups say the lives of those on the street are also at risk. Their vulnerability was emphasized by the recent murder of a homeless man whose sleeping bag was set on fire as he slept.

Most of last year’s 625 neighborhood fires took place outdoors. Almost two-thirds were reported as trash fires and of those, 40 were further classified as “encampment fires.”

The neighborhood’s fire reports for this year are on track with 2020’s numbers, Mission Local found. A fire erupted in an RV just last weekend and four were reported in September. Much like the RV fire, many of the outdoor blazes are the result of open flames from “poor heating” or “poor cooking” issues.

Bell-shaped scorch marks on buildings around the neighborhood are signs of propane tanks, home owner Dana Marak told the blog. After a 2018 fire near her Shotwell Street home, which consumed a car and nearly reached an electrical transformer, two of her tenants moved out. She stayed, even though she now feels as though she sees “a fire a week.” A September cooking fire next to a supermarket marred a mural that Marek and her neighbors had just paid an artist to create to discourage encampments and graffiti. It involved three shopping carts turned upside down, likely to be used as barbecues.

The fires have impacted more than just walls. In April, three cars were damaged when a tent in which meth was being cooked caught fire. Recent tent fires have also spread to storage units and apartment buildings, although no residents were injured.

The unhoused are particularly vulnerable and are sometimes targets of “acts of hate,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told the blog. In July, according to COH officials, an unknown assailant tried to set an occupied tent in the Mission on fire.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the district, told the blog that the fires were a “real concern” and that the constituents contacting her office about them were not “being anti-homeless or entitled or alarmist.” She was unimpressed by the “lack of action” from the city’s Department of Homelessness and Housing and Department of Emergency Management after she called an emergency meeting with their heads last month.

“We need to have a multifaceted strategy that deals with immediate crisis on the street and deals with the long term permanent housing,” said Ronen, who recently earned Housing Twitter’s scorn after voting against a controversial 500-unit apartment complex in the mid-Market neighborhood.

She called an email she got from the city in response to her concern, with a list of phone numbers constituents could call if they saw people on the street, “a slap in the face.”

“Every one of my constituents have called these numbers 100 times,” she said.

[Mission Local] – Emily Landes





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