Data obtained by NBC 7 Investigates shows that fire-incident calls possibly tied to homelessness are sharply on the rise in San Diego.
In 2018, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department started tracking dispatch calls with possible homeless connections so the department could work more closely with police to prevent wildfires.
Data obtained by a public records request shows that in 2018, San Diego firefighters responded to 739 fire-related incident calls, where the words "homeless," "transient" or "encampment" were mentioned as a keyword. In 2019, that number was 944. So far in 2020, it's 1,018. The data does not necessarily mean the fires were started by homeless people.
Since 1977, Brian Daniels has provided seating and grandstands for iconic Southern California events like the Rose Parade and Miramar Air Show and smaller event, like graduations and tennis tournaments. Now, because of COVID-19, his contracts have been cancelled. Instead, he is storing his unused equipment in lots, including one on Main Street in Barrio Logan.
“There will be no work this year,” Daniels, 77, told NBC7 Investigates.
But the lack of work isn't the only thing frustrating Daniels. He said his property, near the I-15 and I-5 freeway interchange, is not only constantly littered with trash and drug paraphernalia, it has become a tinderbox for fires allegedly started by transients. He doesn't have insurance, which means thousands of dollars of his own money has gone toward the cleanup and replacement of items.
When asked how many fires have scorched portions of his property, he couldn't provide an exact figure.
“I mean, how many fires?” Daniels said. “I don't know. We’ve had 5-10 of them.”
SDFD Assistant Chief Chris Webber told NBC7 Investigates how the system works.
“It could just be that a fire happened near an encampment or a homeless person was in the area of it, or we’ve had it where a homeless person triggers a fire alarm in a building,” Webber said, adding, “if you’re looking at our call volumes and runs that we do, I don’t see it as a significant issue for us.”
But that’s not what high-ranking sources within the department told NBC7 Investigates. They said that the number of homeless fire dispatch calls they run on is much, much higher than the data reveals.
They say keywords like "homeless" and "transient," which can be noted by 911 dispatchers or fire personnel, are often not entered into the computer system for tracking.
Monica Munoz, spokesperson for the SDFD, told NBC7 Investigates that since 2017, they have not had a fire connected to homeless persons that caused injury, death or property damage other than trees or brush.
That’s something that some firefighters and Daniels said isn't possible, though.
“I’ve had a motor home burn down here, a couple of campers in here burned down,” Daniels said.
Daniels said a fire a few months ago caused significant damage, incinerating plastic chairs he used for events.
“A group of homeless had a little campsite down close to the river, and the fire got out of hand, got up the back and came into my yard,” Daniels said.
The burned plastic chairs still sit in the same spot.
Webber said the city uses the keyword data to better coordinate resources to help the homeless. but if the correct keywords aren't being entered every time, taxpayer dollars may not be going to the right places.
San Diego homeless advocate Michael McConnell agrees.
“A tremendous amount of resources and taxpayer dollars are being spent managing the crisis of homelessness, and that includes running around putting out fires,” McConnell said. “That is money that could go to real solutions.”
McConnell said he has noticed more unattended campsites in the past few months and believes that is tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
“When COVID hit, at the peak of it, there weren’t as many outreach people,” McConnell said. “Because it’s harder for people to get food during the pandemic that increases the possibility that people are cooking their own food,” adding that “eventually what’s going to happen is there is going to be a fire started, and it’s going to injure or kill somebody.”
An abandoned warehouse, which burned for the third time in June and has since been leveled, is located a few blocks from Daniels; property. https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/firefighters-battle-large-flames-at-barrio-logan-commercial-building/2348643/
Like many fires, the cause of the fire was never determined. Daniels believes the warehouse fires were started by transients.
When fire crews encounter homeless encampments, firefighters submit a request to the police or environmental services department to respond and clean up the area, Munoz said.
“There are a lot of calls that are less desirable for our crews,” Munoz said. “But when people call us and there is something that we've been trained to do, and it's something to protect the public or provide something to the public, we go.”
Daniels said that he ends up doing the cleanup himself most of the time.