The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In L.A., skid row’s homeless deal with yet more misery as tents go up in flames

A homeless tent camp burns in late May at the corner of 6th Street and Ceres Avenue in Los Angeles. (Video: Sgt. Jacob Bushey LAPD)
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LOS ANGELES — He woke up hot and sweaty in his tent. But when he tried to crawl out for fresh air, he found a ring of flames around the sidewalk where he’d pitched the canvas.

“I rolled out and come up fighting through the fire,” 58-year-old Bobby Holiday, a tall man with a Dodgers cap and a faraway gaze, recalled on a sweltering July afternoon. “Burned my heel. All the clothes I had all got burned up.”

On the mean streets that collectively are known here as skid row, where several thousand homeless men and women wander, the fire was just one of the many that have consumed tents in recent years. Sometimes set by jilted lovers or gang members collecting a debt, other times the result of cooking- or drug-related mishaps, the blazes have destroyed belongings, damaged property and tested the resources of firefighters.

And the number of conflagrations is surging, a dangerous byproduct of the homeless epidemic in this sprawling city as well as Los Angeles County. A downtown business group has already counted 81 fires this year through Monday, which far outpaces the 59 recorded for all of 2017.

Half a dozen individuals have been injured this year, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. Somehow, no one has died.

Los Angeles police Capt. Marc Reina, whose division includes skid row, said he knows of no arrests or charges stemming from the tent fires. “People don’t want to cooperate as a witness.”

The misery of skid row, a national symbol of urban dystopia packed into an area of less than one square mile, has long been a source of civic strife and recrimination.

“In the name of compassion, the city has fundamentally abdicated its responsibility to provide for the safety of the general public in this area,” said Estela Lopez, executive director of the L.A. Downtown Industrial District Business Improvement District.

Police blame the courts for rulings that tie their hands. Courts fault police for harsh crackdowns in which homeless people’s medications or possessions have been seized.

City officials call for patience, highlighting their plans for building shelters and affordable housing on a massive scale thanks to a $1.2 billion bond measure that voters approved in 2016. Construction is underway, although no new units have been completed, and a citywide initiative to open temporary shelters has faced fierce opposition in some neighborhoods.

Matt Szabo, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), said the city will enforce the municipal code prohibiting daytime tent encampments along skid row and elsewhere once more shelters are up and running. “We are working with the council office on literally a daily basis, and we’re working with the private sector as well,” he said.

Encampments are now fixtures throughout the county — in underpasses, industrial zones and business corridors. Overall, about three-quarters of the local homeless population — which now exceeds 53,000 — live without a real roof over their heads. In New York City, just 5 percent do.

“It’s a FEMA-like, Red Cross-like emergency,” said the Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of skid row’s Union Rescue Mission, a nonprofit group that provides shelters for hundreds of transients. “Even with that great need, we aren’t making much progress in putting up shelters.”

Yet the proliferation of tents has been most visible on skid row.

“In the 1990s, there were maybe four or five streets known as the tent streets,” said Los Angeles police officer Deon Joseph, who has patrolled the area for two decades. “Now they’re on every block.”

The reasons for that are unclear. Joseph points to a federal judge’s 2011 injunction — subsequently upheld by the courts — that barred the police from confiscating and destroying the property of homeless people. This has “tied the hands of law enforcement,” he said, with police reluctant to clear tents even though city ordinances require them to be taken down during the day.

Gangs are capitalizing on the situation, according to police. Members of the Crips and Bloods are blending into the scene, pitching tents from which they traffic drugs, alcohol and weapons, Joseph said. Some tents are rented out for sex work. Many noncriminal tent dwellers are harassed until they agree to hide contraband or pay a protection fee.

“If you don’t agree to that, you basically have to leave or you’ll be assaulted,” Joseph said.

Alvin Wilder, manager of a low-cost motel on skid row, said one of his permanent tenants used to pitch a tent during the day to set up a kind of street liquor store and meth shop. The woman’s bootlegging outfit encroached on a competitor’s territory. After a verbal warning earlier this month, the person torched her tent.

“When you’re selling the same thing as somebody else and taking most of the money, then that’s when they are going to get rid of you,” Wilder said. “They going to burn you out. There’s one or two [tents] going up every week.”

In an area long awash in violence, mental illness and desperation, other motivations also keep coming into play. Holiday says he has had three tents burned over the years; each fire, he believes, was set by a former girlfriend on whom he’d cheated. He has lost clothing and other possessions.

Such fires have likewise become a hazard outside skid row. The most well-known incident occurred in December, when homeless people cooking illegally beneath a freeway sparked the Skirball wildfire, which destroyed six houses in the wealthy foothills of the city’s Bel-Air neighborhood. No arrests have been made.

One morning in March, 33-year-old Maria Morales was sitting in her tent in an industrial section of South Los Angeles when the tent next to hers was set aflame by another homeless person upset about a missing DVD player.

As she and her neighbor tried to throw water on the 20-foot flames, they were startled by loud pops.

“It was beans — you know the beans in cans?” Morales said. “They were going off like bombs.”

Tent fires take a toll on businesses when buildings are charred or damaged, causing insurance rates to spike.

A blaze late last year on skid row caused $85,000 in damage to a seafood warehouse on Seventh Street. (It was captured on video.) Lisa Rich, the building’s owner, said she doesn’t blame the homeless men and women but rather the city for failing to create desirable shelters. Still, she has thought about ways to deter individuals from congregating near her property.

“I was playing around with ideas . . . to somehow put an irrigation system up on the roof and water down, so that the water would rain down on the homeless,” she said. “Maybe blast loud music after midnight, or, I don’t know, bright lights.”

At the Union Rescue Mission, Bales plans to soon put up an oversize tent in his parking lot that will serve as an emergency shelter for 100 women.

“Our hearts just have not been impacted yet by homelessness to treat it like the disaster that it is,” he said. “ ‘Not in my backyard’ is still a more fervent cry.”

Rob Kuznia is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles and is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.

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