Rose Bak
Rose Bak
Three large fires in Southeast Portland this autumn were associated with houseless individuals sheltering in abandoned buildings or camps nearby.

One fire was across the street from Catholic Charities’ Clark Family Center on Southeast Powell Boulevard at 28th Avenue.

It was so close that the heat broke windows in the Catholic Charities building.

“We were all saddened about the fire,” said Rose Bak, chief program director at Catholic Charities of Oregon. “It’s a very good example of why we need to pull together as a community to help people get inside to locations that are safe for habitation, whether it’s housing, shelters or villages.”

Bak noted that Portland’s climate makes it challenging to stay warm and dry for those without homes. Many people living rough develop conditions like trench foot, frostbite and pneumonia from being cold and wet.

This autumn’s fires included one at Southeast Ninth and Alder in late September when an abandoned warehouse collapsed in flames. Portland Fire and Rescue had responded to other fires at that building in recent years.

Two days later, a tent caught fire at Southeast 21st and Powell, spreading to adjacent apartment buildings.

The fire at Southeast 28th and Powell surprised no one, neighbors told KOIN 6 News. They reported seeing fires around the area and homeless staying in the building.

“The problem is when you’re living in a tent everything around you is flammable,” Portland Fire and Rescue’s Rob Garrison told KOIN 6.

“We know that people in the community are weary of seeing campers and hearing stories like this, and that’s why it’s important to pull together and work on solutions,” said Bak. “We know that if we can get people into housing, we can get them other services like mental health treatment, addictions recovery services, job training, etc. But you can’t do that until you know that you have a safe place to sleep and food to eat tonight.”

Portland and Multnomah County announced Nov. 1 they would budget an additional $38 million in new programs to add shelter beds, health and outreach workers, and community cleanup programs.

The damage isn’t only in Portland. Headlines from around the country in the first week in November publicize the danger: “Two injured in fire at Concord homeless camp”; “Ballard WA homeless camp fire highlights why businesses, residents want change”; “Fire spreads from homeless camp to 3 [San Diego] elementary school classrooms.”

The Catholic Charities homeless outreach team currently is searching for ways to get people on the streets non-flammable lights and heating sources to help reduce the chances of tents and abandoned buildings catching on fire. They also are trying to distribute winter-weight sleeping bags, hand warmers and warm clothes.

— Kristen Hannum

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