Homeless camps are a bleak fixture in Los Angeles. There is not enough housing and shelter for the homeless, whose number has increased by 16% in the city over the past year. As the pandemic continued to spread, city officials allowed the camps to be left (mostly) lest the homeless contract or spread COVID-19 by removing them from one place to another.
But the other grim reality in Los Angeles is fire. This is the only reason – despite the aforementioned concerns – to relocate the homeless from camps in woodland and wooded gardens. There has been an astonishing 80% rise in fires for homeless people so far this year, compared to the same period in 2019.
The fires are so common and intense that fire officials believe that camps for the homeless in areas considered most at risk of fires now pose a year-round threat to public safety. Not only may the homeless people end up trapped in a brush fire, but any cooking they do – on portable stoves, grills, and hotplates – can start accidentally.
The Skirball fire that destroyed six homes in the Bel-Air neighborhood, damaging dozens of other homes and burning more than 400 acres, was caused by a cooking fire at a campsite in a valley off Sepulveda Boulevard. Over the past several years, several small fires in the grass gardens in the Sepulveda Basin and Hansen Dam in the San Fernando Valley have been attributed to homeless people, according to Los Angeles fire department officials.
On a recent hot night, homeless campers in a wooded area on the University of West Los Angeles campus of the Veterans Affairs Department of the United States began lighting a fire to cook in a tin can. Nearby residents spotted the flames and called the fire department. Campers put her out minutes before the arrival of firefighters and Virginia police, then fled, leaving behind mattresses and clothes. On the same weekend, officials say, a homeless person lit a small fire in the Sepulveda Basin. The body of a homeless person was found at the site.
To be sure, there are much more homeless-related fires in sliding lines and densely populated parts of the city than in forest and tree areas. From January to August of this year, there were 3,616, according to the Fire Department. Most of them were small and quickly extinguished – a trash can fire, a tent burning from a hot plate.
While all of these fires are dangerous, a few of them may explode in wildfire the way a campfire could explode in the woods.
Adding to the complications, it is extremely difficult to reach the displaced people in the Brush Camps. Outreach workers can spend hours hiking to a secluded camp site that firefighters or neighbors alert them to, only to find that the homeless have moved – or can’t be persuaded to leave. The homeless people surrounded by brushes are resilient and self-reliant, and do not seek aid from food or beds for shelter. Therefore, outreach workers have been reduced to providing warnings and leaflets. Los Angeles Homeless Services outreach personnel never remove camps (nor should they) nor confiscate any items, including cooking stoves.
Even evacuating the camps is difficult. Law enforcement and sanitation workers can only evacuate people on city-owned property. (For other properties, they must contact the owners.) It is true that officials may order evacuations at any time in high fire risk areas. However, it is a labor-intensive process, requiring multiple trips by police, sanitation workers, and outreach workers, so it is generally performed on days when the risk of fire is highest.
But handouts and warnings are not enough. The city should not wait for the days when the fire risk is greatest. We realize it’s a daunting task for police and sanitation workers when their resources are already limited, but bear in mind the consequences of inaction: a horrific fire could wipe out the neighborhood. If there is no housing or shelter available for the displaced camps – or people refuse what is available – the city should consider offering vouchers for several days at a hotel or establishing authorized camps.
The Department of Veterans Affairs does this for homeless veterans. Although the VA does not allow camping in the wooded parts of campus (where the last campfires were discovered), it has set up a tent city on the grassy open space of the campus. Veterans are provided with restroom facilities, meals, mental health, medical care, and outreach services to help provide housing for them. But it is only a temporary measure. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been working for years on a plan to build housing for homeless veterans.
The fact that the options are so bleak for the homeless is another reminder that housing and shelter are sorely needed. But camping in a fire-prone area should never be an option.