The fire that tore through an abandoned warehouse in Harrisburg on Monday morning may have been related to the Pennsylvania capital’s rising homeless population. The fire was so intense that it threatened to spread to a neighboring building, but firefighters successfully contained it before that happened. While no one was hurt in the blaze Monday, the episode demonstrates one of the many hazards unique to those left to fend for themselves in harsh weather.
Harrisburg police briefed their public safety colleagues that the warehouse was a known gathering place for the city’s homeless, a city spokeswoman confirmed to ThinkProgress, and PennLive reported that “several old mattresses appeared to have been pulled from the warehouse.” The homeless population in the area has jumped by about 40 percent since 2009, according to Chuck Wingate, executive director of Harrisburg’s Bethesda Mission men’s shelter.
“The bad joke is they’re called ‘abandominiums,’” Wingate told ThinkProgress. Wingate was surprised by reports that the fire might have started from people attempting to keep warm. “I’m not sure why somebody would choose to be in a warehouse when they could hang out with us.” Wingate’s shelter has seen record numbers this year, he said, but “we don’t turn anybody away for capacity reasons.” Homeless people who have had bad experiences in shelters in the past are sometimes so wary of returning to them that they prefer to sleep rough.
Back in the fall, Harrisburg police had cleared out an unauthorized tent camp favored by many homeless people in the area who didn’t seek out Wingate’s shelter. City officials did not keep track of where each camp resident went after the closure of that camp, so it is hard to say whether the decision to clear the camp lead homeless people to use the Cameron Street warehouse that burned on Monday. “Events like this fire reinforce our Plan to continue aggressive outreach, bring as many people as possible off the streets and into safe housing, and Raise Public Awareness to the plight of people who refuse to move off the streets,” Harrisburg spokeswoman Joyce Davis said in an email. The city’s coalition of homelessness advocates had visited the tent site that police disbanded, and reached out “to everyone that was willing to talk to us,” she said.
For Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the story “demonstrates the lack of adequate affordable housing in our country.” While some communities have codified a right to shelter on extremely cold or extremely hot nights into their municipal laws, such legal protections for the homeless are rare, and even where they exist they run into reluctance from people with bad memories from past shelter stays. Ultimately, many people are going to be left outdoors to fend for themselves. “When people are in those conditions, they’re subjected to serious dangers. Whether that’s actually setting fire to something, or carbon monoxide poisoning, or tents burning down,” Tars said, “it’s really shameful that in the 21st century in America people are still faced with dying from these conditions that are entirely outdated.”
Cold temperatures bring a surge in stories like this, though the ones that make the news tend to be deadlier. A homeless man burned to death last week in St. Louis after the propane heater he was using to keep warm set his tent ablaze. Days before in Beaumont, TX, acquaintances offered fond remembrances of a 68-year-old homeless man who was killed by the fire he started to keep warm. A warming fire in an abandoned building killed one and injured two in Roanoke, VA earlier in February, and similar fatalities were reported in Savannah, GA, Seattle, WA. All these stories come from the month of February 2015.
The alternative to setting a fire and falling asleep isn’t necessarily any safer. Icy temperatures kill plenty of homeless people every year. Thousands die sleeping outdoors every year, many of them go unmourned beyond the symbolic vigils on National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day in December.
This piece has been updated to include comment from a spokeswoman for the city of Harrisburg.