Fire Safety Gaps Exposed As San Diego’s Homeless Make Canyons Their Home
Speaker 1: 00:00 Some of San Diego's highest fire risk areas are in its Kenyans and parks and that's a problem. As homeless people seek shelter, they're setting fires to stay warm and cook. I knew, I knew. Source investigative reporter of Mary plumber says it also puts homeowners on edge. It's set up time for the Oak park community council meeting. People are taping up a banner and mingling among rows of folding chairs. Some neighbors in the room want nearby North choice community park to be safer. One of the biggest fears, fire, dangerous tied to the local homeless population and Kampmanns abandoned trash and illegal fire rings have all been spotted among the parks. Dry brush neighbor Bruce Thompson takes the mic and talks about what was found during a recent park, Speaker 2: 00:47 about eight lighters, eight empty, very water containers, countless cigarette butts, um, Speaker 1: 00:54 since as the city has poorly responded to the community's calls for help. Sometimes leaving encampments for several weeks before they're cleared out or he's have grown since August when a fire did break out in the park. But residents like a leader, Chavez worry next time it could be worse. That's my major concern that people are going to get hurt. The children. Families are gonna get hurt and whoever was living in this area is going to get hurt too, and I, new source review of resident complaints to the cities, get it done. App found long delays. Residents told us some submissions were described as closed or corrected, but the problems never fixed. On top of that, the city's own rules present challenges only the park perimeters are required to be cleared of brush, not Canyon beds where some homeless camp and use fires to cook residents. Fears are playing out across the city as San Diego grapples with a large unsheltered homeless population. Speaker 1: 01:48 I see a lot of homeless people in this area and especially when it rains, they seem to come out of the canyons and seek shelter. That's Timothy eLeads. She lives near Presidio park in old town and says she'd like to see the city do more. She worries about homeless people living in the park. We certainly should be helping these people find safe places to live and to be clean and also for our safety too because they need help. Fire incident call records obtained by new source show. Firefighters are often responding to homeless problems for the first nine months of this year, 11% of the calls mentioned homeless encampments just after sunrise and Balboa park. A few dozen people are starting their date near Florida Canyon, where many homeless live there are makeshift 10th and bags of cans and leftovers from a fire the night before. Tiffany Guildford says there are fires every night, but she'd rather stay outside than in a shelter. I feel safer. More people that I know around Gifford says she's waiting to get a section eight housing voucher assistance that could end her homelessness. Until then she says she uses a camp to cook food or a makeshift set up of wax wrapped around cotton balls inside an aluminum can give her. It says she wishes there was more compassion for the homeless from the public. People just like you. Speaker 1: 03:13 They're not homeless or houseless. They're just less fortunate. Do you guys, deputy fire chief Doug Perry oversees fire prevention in San Diego. He says to protect against fire is connected to homelessness. The best solution is to get people out of encampments within the parks. Speaker 3: 03:31 When they're cold, they're gonna start fires and they're going to start fires wherever they are, where they think they're safe, and people don't know that they're there. Preventative wise, we got to find places for them to be housed and taken care of. Speaker 1: 03:44 But the city's efforts so far have not worked. The latest homeless count found 2,600 people living with no shelter as premier. Kevin Faulkner's take on fire, dangerous tied to homelessness. We asked for an interview instead, his spokeswoman emailed that the office is doing, quote everything possible to mitigate the potential for spark. For KPBS. I'm I knew source investigative reporter Mary Plummer, Speaker 1: 04:11 and joining me is, I knew source reporter Mary Plummer, Mary well to the show. Hi there. Now it sounds as if city officials don't even have basic information about how many people are living in canyons and parks and San Diego. Is that right? That's right. Um, I spoke with the San Diego regional task force on the homeless and was told that canyons and parks are the hardest places in San Diego to count. Uh, the annual account is done in January. Most of it takes place in the dark. And for safety reasons, they don't ask volunteers to count those areas with a few exceptions in parts of towns, in parts of town that community groups are helping with. So the homeless numbers in parks and canyons aren't known. Uh, we do know over all the latest count found 2,600 homeless people without shelter in the city of San Diego. And certainly, you know, if you live or spend time near parks like Balboa or Presidio park, you've likely seen that the homeless population has a regular presence. Speaker 1: 05:07 So the point in time count is a once a year regional exercise, but the city could conduct its own count and find out how many people are there and how people are surviving in these encampments. Couldn't they? Uh, you know, certainly the city has been pouring resources toward trying to address homelessness. Uh, they know fire risks exist and they're doing things like making improvements to the cities, get it done app where residents can report problems like homeless encampments. Uh, early next year, the app is scheduled to be streamlined so that when you report an encampment, it goes directly to the city's neighborhood policing division. Uh, the city's goal there is to help get encampments cleaned up faster. That said, I have not heard anything about surveying the canyons and my reporting found that residents experience long delays after they reported problems and were often frustrated by the city's lack of response. Speaker 1: 06:00 Uh, they complained about their reports of problems tied to the homeless population getting bumped from department to department. Now part of your reporting looked at San Diego's fire incident call records. Can you tell us more about what you found there? Uh, we received data for the first nine months of 2019 January through September of this year. And what it showed was that about 11% of all fire incident calls, uh, mentioned homeless encampments. That's 365 calls during that time period, uh, the numbers were highest in the summer months. There were 57 calls in August, for example. Uh, now you know, this is just fire incident called data, not actual fire numbers, but it is clear that fire risk tied to homeless encampments are taking up a significant amount of the fire department's time. Uh, here in San Diego. You interviewed homeless people living in Balboa park. What's their take on fire risks in the cities? Speaker 1: 06:53 Canyons? Some homeless, the people we spoke with for this story said fire is really a necessity. They described how cold it gets during the winter, especially in Canyon beds and said they need fires to cook with and keep warm. Uh, certainly, you know, there's a variety of opinions on this. Some folks are quite careful about the fires they create. Others admitted to smoking in the canyons and acknowledged fire risks. Uh, over all though there was a sense in talking with people who live outdoors that the public doesn't understand the challenges and that city officials could be doing more to help. Uh, they talked about, you know, a lack of bathrooms and other resources within the parks they live in. Now, ideally there would be no homeless encampments in parks and canyons, but since there are, are there any ideas how to make them safer? This question to deputy fire chief Doug Perry, and he said the best solution is to get homeless people out of the city's parks in canyons and to get them housed and taken care of elsewhere. Speaker 1: 07:52 Thousands of homes line San Diego's canyons and the city knows that in terms of fire danger, these places are the most at risk. So there are very real worries about this problem having homeless people living in the canyons and using fires to cook and stay warm presents a serious risk. But housing the homeless in San Diego, uh, as you know, has been challenging and looking at the data for the past five years, which some believe is an under count. We have not seen the numbers budge very much. A citywide, the count found about 5,000 homeless. And as we mentioned earlier, more than half are without shelter. I want to talk more about the city's brush clearance rules for canyons and parks. Who's responsible for clearing brush near homes and what safety precautions are in place. So residents who to live near canyons and park should be aware that there are not a lot of safety precautions in place. Speaker 1: 08:45 Canyon beds for example, are not required by the city to be cleared of brush. My reporting found that the vast majority of city land is not cut or managed to prevent fires. There are rules in place to protect homes on the perimeters of parks up to 100 feet of cleared space as required as a firebreak, a responsibility falls to whoever owns the property. So sometimes a that responsibility is shared by the homeowner and the city. And where can folks report fire risks if they see problems in city parks and they're worried about it, the city directs folks to report problems to their get it done app. But you know, as we've been talking about, there have been issues with the app that they're working to improve. So we would be curious to hear how your experience goes if you try it. Um, certainly if there's an active buyer, you should call nine one one the city. Also has a line where you can report concerns about overgrowth and brush management. I you can find that phone number on our website. I knew source.org we've also got the full story there and tools you can use to check out your neighborhood. I've been speaking with our new source reporter, Mary Plummer. Mary, thank you. Thank you.