Fires Behind San Bruno Avenue Threaten Homes

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A series of fires emanating from a homeless encampment located on a strip of California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)-owned property in between Highway 101 and San Bruno Avenue has sparked neighborhood groups to fight for safety, and inclusive solutions to homelessness.

A fire that broke out in September catalyzed concerned residents. “People got really upset. This was really the last draw. We’ve been really tolerant of the homeless situation,” said San Bruno Avenue resident Bill Owings, who doused flames with a garden hose alongside another neighbor that day. It was the third time that the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) had been called to the same location within two days, according to an ABC 7 report.

The causes of the fires are unclear. While SFFD has been called to the area numerous times to police cooking fires, “a rumor is circulating that began with a homeless person saying that these are retribution fires for unpaid drug bills,” Owings said.

The area is also besieged with garbage. “There is so much trash back there it looks like a dump,” said Owings. One of the homeless occupants put up a sign that says “Mess City,” according to San Bruno Avenue resident Joe Treinen. A tree stump is completely covered in used needles, he added.

According to San Bruno Avenue resident Mike Ryan, the neighborhood doesn’t harbor any animosity against the homeless, but rather hopes that a citywide solution can be established to prevent dangerous incidents. “It’s not a homeless issue. The issue is someone trying to burn down my house… it’s an arson issue. I can’t speak for all the neighbors, but most of us feel the same way,” he said.

District 10 has 1,272 homeless residents, the City’s second largest population without a roof after District 6, according to the 2015 San Francisco Point-In-Time Homeless Count & Survey. That survey indicated that 71 percent of homeless people lived in the City before they became displaced, and of that percentage, 49 percent had resided in San Francisco for ten or more years. Only ten percent came from outside the City.

“We have to start looking at the core reasons people are homeless,” said Ryan. “I hope a tragedy doesn’t happen while everyone is pointing fingers at each other.”

Caltrans has indicated that it might install tall rod iron fences in the area. However, these barriers wouldn’t be constructed until at least the spring of 2016. “The only official position this department has is that we’re going to do whatever we can to work with CHP, as well as social service providers and homeless advocates, to try to find a solution to this problem. I genuinely wish we had an answer,” said a Caltrans spokesperson. “We’re going to do what we can to keep everybody safe. All we can do is to continue to work collectively.”

San Francisco Fire Department Chief, Joanne Hayes-White, plans to meet with District 10 supervisor Malia Cohen to identify ways to resolve issues in the area. However, no date has been set for the discussion, according to SFFD spokesperson Mindi Talmage.

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