A homeless man is without shelter as rain storms sweep the Bay Area, after his tent caught fire early Tuesday morning in a possible case of arson.
Amos Howard, a U.S. Army veteran who has been living in a tent outside a church at 18th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, said he suspects two men set fire to his tent intentionally. Police and fire officials say the incident is still under investigation and could not provide any details about what might have caused it.
Howard, who was not injured in the fire, told police and Mission Local that he had been “out recycling” on Monday evening and upon returning to his tent after midnight found two men standing close by.
“They were covered up – I couldn’t see them. I asked what they were doing and they said ‘Just chilling,’” recounted Howard, adding that he overheard one of the men say that he had placed something behind Howard’s tent.
A police report of the incident indicates that Howard had been inside of his tent when he heard two men congregating behind it. Police report that Howard told the men “not to do drugs back there.”
Howard said the men left after he started questioning them. He then entered his tent and noticed the odor of “something burning.”
“The lord spoke to me and told me to get out, so I did,” said Howard. Minutes after exiting his tent, Howard said he heard a “loud boom.”
“It was an explosion. And then it started burning. When it exploded the whole tent went up in flames,” said Howard. “I just stood back and said ‘Oh god, what can I do?’ There’s nothing I could do. I just had to let it go.”
Police and fire officials responded to reports of a small fire at 12:41 a.m. on January 3 outside the St. Charles Borromeo Parish at 713 South Van Ness Ave., and found that the tent had been set ablaze.
Police have not reported any arrests in the ongoing investigation and will not say whether they suspect arson. Officer Robert Rueca, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, said Howard told responding officers on Tuesday that “someone had set fire to his tent.”
“He may have had a conversation with a couple of people. But the victim didn’t exactly see the people that he had the conversation with starting the fire,” said Rueca, adding that the incident is being treated as a “fire investigation.”
Howard, for his part, said the fire was retaliation after he stopped a man from breaking into cars in the area. On New Year’s Day, Howard said an unidentified man attempted to break into a car parked on 18th Street, right across where his tent had been located.
“I told him ‘You’re not doing this. Leave the car alone, it’s not yours, get away from it,’” said Howard. His attempt at running the car robber off was met by threats, he said.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna get you,” said Howard, adding that he was unable to identify the alleged suspect. “Then last night, [my tent] blew up. So he meant what he said.”
It is unclear if Howard was offered shelter or other services by responding police. Rueca, of the police department, said that it is protocol for responding officers to connect homeless individuals in crisis to services, but that an offer was not documented in the police report regarding the incident.
Howard said he hasn’t received any offer of shelter or help.
The morning after the fire, Howard lay underneath a tarp in the midst of scorched debris. The wall of the side of the church next which he had been camping also sustained fire damage.
“I lost everything,” he said, adding that his tent, sleeping bag, wallet, phone, and ID have been destroyed.
In December, Howard, who has been homeless for some two years following an eviction from a single room occupancy hotel in the Mission, spoke with Mission Local about his struggle with finding housing and navigating city services.
He had been camping alongside the side parish since December 2015, even obtaining permission from its pastor, Father John Jimenez. It was in the church’s shadows that Howard felt safe, he told Mission Local then.
Here is a video Mission Local did in late December on Amos and his experience on the street:
Now, Howard said he will likely leave the church’s sidewalk and camp elsewhere.
“I don’t feel safe staying here,” he said. “Whoever that was, they were trying to hurt me.”
Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, said that violence against and among homeless individuals is common and often goes unreported. While working in the Tenderloin, Cutler said she has seen several cases in which the sleeping bags of homeless campers were set on fire while their occupants were fast asleep.
“People don’t understand when you don’t have a locked door, that there is a vulnerability there,” she said, adding that homeless campers are often targeted because of “stigma and alienation.”
“It is not socially acceptable to be talking hatefully or poorly about different groups but when it comes to people experiencing homelessness, it’s more acceptable to be hating on them and to demonize them,” she said. “So often, [the victims] don’t even report it. They feel like it’s pointless.”
With the city’s shelter wait list exceeding 1,000 people last month for the first time, limited city resources make it unlikely that Howard will find shelter for the night unless city services – or good samaritans – step in, said Cutler.
Howard, who for now remains on 18th Street at South Van Ness Avenue, said he is in need of a tent, sleeping bag, and warm clothing.