The hazards of homeless encampments were brought to public attention over the weekend when an encampment in Ballard caught fire on Saturday night.
Witnesses described an explosion and popping sounds like ammunition. The Seattle Fire Department received reports of exploding propane tanks. The fire’s cause, however, has not been determined.
Ballard Commons Park was also the site of violent incidents over the summer, including a shooting, an assault, and a near-stabbing in the month of August alone.
This fire is no freak accident. In fact, fires are far-too-common in homeless encampments, endangering the homeless and the surrounding communities.
Earlier this summer, two people were found deceased in Seattle after firefighters extinguished 50-foot flames consuming a structure of pallets and tarps within a homeless camp. KOMO News reports that “there have been more than 890 encampment fires reported in Seattle just this year – a record jump.”
In downtown Los Angeles, fire crews “are responding to dozens of fires they say are caused by people experiencing homelessness,” CBS reported in June. According to the Los Angeles Fire Department, 80% of fires in downtown were from homeless encampments.
“Fires that occur at encampments can spread rapidly due to the type of material involved and close proximity to brush,” reads the Fireline Blog of the Seattle Fire Department. “Additionally, fires present a significant danger to encampment occupants, as there are not standard fire safety systems in place (such as smoke alarms) to alert occupants of an active fire.”
Still, homeless advocates defend the existence of homeless encampments against sweeps and efforts to house the homeless. A woman who preferred to remain anonymous told Kiro 7 “people will die” if the city sweeps the place because some will turn down emergency shelter beds for fear of bed bugs and rape.
While the dangers of emergency shelters are real, the alternative cannot be outdoor encampments that leave the homeless vulnerable to shootings, assaults, stabbings, and fire. Those experiencing homelessness, and the communities surrounding them, deserve clean and safe neighborhoods.