The surging homeless population in Los Angeles now accounts for 54 percent of all fires set this year. During the first quarter of 2021, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) had to fight an average of 24 fires each day, with many of them due to the thousands of homeless encampments that litter the city and county.

According to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, over 66,000 homeless people are living in Los Angeles. This represents a 13 percent increase in the city’s pre-pandemic homeless population.

An analysis of the fire department’s records suggests that fires related to homelessness had doubled in all of the LAFD’s 14 districts since 2018 when they first had complete records of homeless-related blazes.

In 2018, the LAFD responded to 2,978 homelessness-related fires, accounting for slightly under 30 percent of all fires that year. In 2019 that number rose to 3,662 fires and slightly under 36 percent of all fires.

In 2020 the number of homelessness-related fires – and all fires, in general – skyrocketed. The LAFD recorded responding to 14,405 fires, with 6,788 of them – or 47 percent – related to homelessness.

The fires were most prevalent in downtown and South Los Angeles. But the north side of the city, from the San Fernando Valley to Northeast Los Angeles, has also experienced a significant rise in fires.

The surge in the homeless population and the fires that follow them is another indication that city and county officials are not properly handling the crisis. This sentiment is echoed in parts of the city and county where the homeless populations concentrate, with residents and business owners in the area saying their concerns are not being heard.

Homeless people use heaters and cooking fires that can start large blazes

According to LAFD Capt. Erik Scott, the homeless population brings with it several hazards such as the heaters they use on cold nights and the propane tanks and other fires they start to cook their food. He added that these potential hazards increase significantly on windy days, when the fires can spread even more rapidly than they already do.

“One of our concerns is fires in tents where people experiencing homelessness are sleeping – where they could be injured or even die – and fires that start against a building and spread into the structure,” said Scott. “Flames from those fires can spread into the brush in wildland areas, or to nearby buildings in urban areas or inside vacant buildings.”

Armando Hogan, the deputy chief of operations for the LAFD’s West Bureau, wondered why the fires are starting in homeless encampments.

“Is it a simple matter of these folks just need a place to go and eat? Is it a bigger matter of individuals having problems within each other in the encampments? Is it just a warming issue?” asked Hogan.

Hogan and other LAFD officials are hoping they can educate the homeless population – and the general public – on safe cooking practices to avoid fires.

“If I can educate them a little bit more on maybe not cooking inside the tent,” said Hogan. “We don’t want to encourage just having open cooking there on the sidewalk, but we’re trying to look at alternatives.”

While a majority of the fires have been classified as accidental, around a third of the homelessness-related blazes recorded since 2018 have been classified as arson attacks. Arrests for these fires are rare, with only 303 people arrested for arson over the past two years. This represents a dismally low clearance rate of about six percent.

On May 3, a video went viral on social media showing someone throwing what looked like flaming material into a tent at a homeless encampment at the Venice Beach boardwalk.

On May 18, one homeless person was arrested and charged for committing arson attacks in the wealthy Pacific Palisades neighborhood. The fire he started ignited 1,158 acres of brush.

Los Angeles officials unwilling to find permanent solution to homeless crisis

A majority of the fires are small, usually limited to dumpsters and piles of trash. The most common outcome of these small fires is the destruction of several tents or other homeless shelters. But many more fires are costly and tragic.

In 2020, seven homeless people died in fires in Los Angeles. Fires that begin in homeless camps lined up right next to businesses have caused tens of millions of dollars in damages.

LAFD Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas recently toured through the Skid Row neighborhood with representatives from nearby business districts to discuss their concerns regarding the homeless encampments. Despite this show of interest, business leaders still do not believe city leaders are listening to them.

Venice Chamber of Commerce President George Francisco said city officials had not offered any concrete solutions to protect businesses and residents from encroaching homeless encampments.

“No one is trying to solve this problem [because it would] cripple the largest financial business in Venice, which is social services,” said Francisco. The emergency shelters city officials set up contract nonprofit organizations to operate them.

The reputation Los Angeles officials are getting for not taking the homeless crisis has been compounded by recent statements and actions from prominent officials.

When the suspect of the Pacific Palisades arson attack was arrested, the person’s status as a homeless person was widely brought up. Bonin responded on Twitter:

“Arson is a crime committed by a person and not by their housing status. Suggesting the suspect’s housing status is a contributing factor to the crime is irresponsible, and implies other people experiencing homelessness are inherently more dangerous or more likely to commit arson than housed people.”

Luis Perez, the general manager of the Venice Beach Bar, told The Epoch Times that he has seen homeless people get bussed into the boardwalk from other cities. At the start of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Bonin declared the Venice boardwalk a sanctuary zone for homeless people.

“All the people who actually were here for years went away, because I haven’t seen anyone who used to be around here,” said Perez.

“I do realize that as a situation we got to find a place to help these people out, but I personally just don’t believe that a beautiful state park in a business district is the right place to allow for that to be a sanctuary area.”

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