An astonishing number of tent fires have struck the homeless in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a section of the city’s downtown industrial district that for decades has been a symbol of America’s homelessness epidemic.
Skid Row has weathered 81 tent fires so far this year, up from 59 last year, according to the L.A. Downtown Industrial District Business Improvement District, a local nonprofit. More than 4,600 people live in Skid Row, an area that spans about 50 city blocks and is known for its tent cities.
Some of the fires are intentional, while others are caused by cooking or drug-related accidents. Six people have been injured this year, although no deaths have been reported, according to the Washington Post.
Despite the rise in tent fires, it remains difficult to press charges. “People don’t want to cooperate as a witness,” Los Angeles police captain Marc Reina told the Post.
That may be because the recent uptick in fires has been linked to retaliation from gangs as well as to domestic violence, according to Estela Lopez, executive director of the Industrial District Business Improvement District. “There are a number of drivers, but it’s all based on the fact that the sidewalks are not where people should live,” Lopez told Slate. “There is a lack of enforcement by the city, but there’s no lack of enforcement by the gangs. They’re the ones who are enforcing in this area. They’re the ones who are extracting a price if you don’t do what they say. And the fires are an outgrowth of that.”
Fires aren’t the only hazard that comes with life on Skid Row. The homeless have been harassed and exploited by gang members involved in drug and sex trafficking, according to police. Past crackdowns by police have also caused conflict in the neighborhood. A federal judge’s injunction in 2011, which was upheld in court, barred police from seizing property without reasonable belief it is abandoned, evidence of a crime, or an immediate threat to public safety.
Skid Row isn’t the only site of tent encampments in Los Angeles. More than 53,000 people are homeless in the county. To tackle its homelessness problem, the city is constructing shelters and affordable housing with a $1.2 billion bond measure that voters approved in 2016. The mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Matt Szabo, told the Post that the city is waiting until more shelters are up and running before it enforces the municipal code that prohibits daytime tent encampments.
Tent fires don’t just hurt the area’s residents; they can also harm nearby businesses. Last year, a seafood warehouse on Seventh Street was damaged in a fire.
The city has been criticized in the past for being slow to respond to fires on Skid Row, in contrast to its quick response to a fire at a homeless encampment in the wealthy Bel-Air neighborhood.
Lopez called on the city to act before the fires lead to fatalities. “There are people on the sidewalk who are frightened and intimidated because of these fires,” she told Slate. “There are business owners in the area who are having their fire insurance rates either increased or in some cases canceled because of this. This is no way to run a city.”