firefighters extinguish a fire started from grocery carts used as a barbecue against building wall
Firemen extinguish a fire on the side of Foods Co's west wall (66 Shotwell Street) on Sep. 30, 2021. A firefighter said that three shopping carts had been turned upside down and used as barbecues. Photo courtesy of Christi Azevedo.

Dana Marek was visibly upset. Pointing to the electrical pole 10 feet from her front door on Shotwell Street, where city employees tried to lacquer over the charred wood, she recounts how a propane fire started here in 2018. It consumed a car and neared the electrical transformer before it was extinguished by the San Francisco Fire Department. No one was hurt, but two of her tenants left the next week, she said. 

Nowadays, her neighborhood sees “a fire a week,” Marek said. A recent one erupted on Sept. 30 across the street from Marek’s home, against FoodsCo’s west wall, between 14th and 15th streets. Marek and her neighbors had just paid an artist to repaint a mural there to discourage tagging and encampments. Marek noted the particular bell shape of the fire scars, indicating a propane tank. “You can see them around the neighborhood.” Many, as it turns out. 

Fire incident data confirms residents’ sense that fires are increasing. The number of fires rose sharply last year and have remained high. Lt. Jonathan Baxter, the SFFD public information officer, said the city saw a 60 percent increase in outdoor fires in 2020.

“Our members in the field have found many of these fires to be attributed to encampments throughout the City,” wrote Baxter in an email. 

Propane tanks are only one method. The FoodsCo wall fire involved three shopping carts, according to a Fire Department report. The shopping carts, a firefighter at the scene told a resident, had likely been turned upside down to use as barbecues. Three other tent or encampment-related fires were extinguished by the Fire Department in September (approximately one a week), including an “unoccupied tent fire” near Marshall Elementary School.

As recently as last Saturday, Nov. 6, an RV burned under Highway 101 at 15th and San Bruno streets, a fire Baxter said the department classified as an “accidental … encampment fire caused by either open flame from poor heating or open flame from poor cooking issues.” The Fire Department extinguished a trash fire on 16th Street on Oct. 26.

Between April and July, Mission Local also reported on tent and encampment fires in the vicinity. The fires damaged a South Van Ness Avenue building unit, two Florida Street storage units, a Pacific Gas & Electric pole, and three cars on Folsom Street. The latter was a result of meth being cooked in a tent.

It’s all a little too close for comfort, residents said. Many residents that Mission Local spoke with recounted the 2020 “five alarm fire” at 14th and Shotwell streets, which damaged or destroyed at least six buildings. Numerous residents and businesses were displaced, and Fire Department records indicate a mattress ignited by an open flame or smoking materials as a cause of the blaze.

Click on an orange dot above for more information about fires in and around South Van Ness Avenue-Shotwell-Folsom Streets historic district since April 2021. The 2020 “five alarm” fire took place on 14th Street near Shotwell Street. Interactive map created by Will Jarrett.

Mission Local’s analysis of the public fire department data differs slightly from the department’s internal data because of how the fires are classified; it is often difficult to say if a fire is a trash fire, an “outdoor” fire, or an encampment fire, for example.

However the data is sliced, the Mission saw a major increase. Public fire incident data shows a 50 percent rise in recorded fire incidents in 2020. Almost two-thirds of the neighborhood’s 625 fire incidents were reported as trash fires; 40 of those were specifically coded as encampment fires.

Francisco Herrera, who works with Dolores Street Community Services, said that by failing to prioritize people on the streets, the city has created a perilous situation in which “lives are at stake.”

Jennifer Friedenbach, Coalition on Homelessness executive director, also emphasized the vulnerability of unhoused people. They are sometimes targets of “acts of hate,” like the killing of Luis Temaj, whose sleeping bag was set on fire on Oct. 8 while he slept outside near the intersection of 25th Street and South Van Ness Avenue. He died in the hospital the next day. 

She was also concerned that homelessness and crime were being conflated. Crimes are committed by people “regardless of housing status,” she said.

Fires are the most visible manifestation of problems that residents said are increasing in and around the South Van Ness Avenue-Shotwell-Folsom Streets historic district, the “isolated pocket of development” sandwiched between 14th and 15th streets unharmed by the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Today, the neighborhood is a mix of business and residential properties. It also hosts a number of tent encampments which some residents think contributes to the nexus of crime, fire risk, and reducing property values.

cooking utensils sit on the sidewalk at an encampment on the sidewalk in north east mission
A cooking apparatus sits on the sidewalk at an encampment in the north east Mission. Some encampment fires have been started by using cooking or heating elements inside tents or too close to flammable materials. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

Emails between residents and the offices of Hillary Ronen and David Campos — current and former District 9 supervisors, respectively — show residents have been reporting their concerns and demanding action as early as 2016. 

Before the pandemic, they organized neighborhood meetings with city officials and local businesses, but ultimately most feel nothing has been done. Herrera said unhoused residents have created survival strategies and, to make the city safe for everyone, the city should work more closely with neighborhood groups and nonprofits.

For now, however, the city’s most visible solution is to clear encampments.  “It seems like the city will come through and sweep an area based on, you know, who is squawking the loudest,” said John Gumas, who started Gumas Advertising 25 years ago out of 99 Shotwell St. “It’d be nice for a few weeks, and then it will come right back.”

He has moved his business out of the area. “I just couldn’t put my employees through that anymore,” he said, referring to recurring vehicle break-ins. When he moved, he had to reduce his building’s rent by about half to get another tenant. “My worst nightmare was a fire, because that’s a wood building,” he said. 

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she shared her constituents’ “frustration at the lack of action.”

“I agree with my constituents that are concerned about fires,” Ronen said. “It is a real concern. It’s not people being anti-homeless or entitled or alarmist.”

The officials responsible for articulating a strategy, Ronen said, including the Department of Homelessness and Housing director Shireen McSpadden and Dept. of Emergency Management executive director Mary Ellen Carol, have yet to do so, despite her prodding since July. 

When Ronen finally called a meeting with the directors on Oct. 20, she was promised a strategy that night. She has yet to see one. Earlier, she received an email with a list of phone numbers and services constituents could call if they saw people on the street. It was “a slap in the face. Every one of my constituents have called these numbers one hundred times,” Ronen said.

“We need to have a multifaceted strategy that deals with immediate crisis on the street and deals with the long term permanent housing,” Ronen said.” We’re not striking the right balance right now.”

But residents seem unconvinced the current approach will change, and they’re worried that the fires will only get worse as the winter brings additional impetus to find ways to keep warm on the street. Based on incidents reported so far, 2021 is on track to match last year’s fire trends.

“It just seems like an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars to do what they’re doing … just kind of insane,” said Gumas, applying the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result to describe the city’s response.

“I’m born and raised in the city, I love the city,” he said, “but it’s getting really hard to love this city right now.”

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. Oh people don’t like tent City? Really DPW and the HOT team does a clean up every few weeks, shelter beds offered when available, drugs, drinking and sex daily plus human waste.
    Within 4 hours after a caring clean they all return, homelessness is a choice and many like it.

  2. unfortunately it’s crazy complicated. disparity of wealth. that development on stevenson was predominantly market rate and would have altered an existing lower income philipino enclave. hotels are great, but can be cost prohibitive to retrofit and upgrade. govt housing has to be 110% safe, but yet people live on the sidewalk. we can fight over the percentage of BMR units in developments, but faster solutions for tent dwellers is imperative. tent parking lots with shared facilities and services seem to offer navigation center type solutions with some autonomy. i don’t know the parameters/limits of the mental health system, but there are many people on the streets who absolutely cannot make safe decisions for themselves. some level of conservatorship needs to be implemented for the homeless with severe mental illness. encampments need limitations. tents are one thing, but piles of debris block sidewalks and turn small fires into conflagrations. our government really needs to perform.

  3. Ronen has been part of the problem ever since she’s been in office. Her comments come of as completely disingenuous after having just voted down a project with a hundred low income units.

    It’s time for SF voters to vote out these do-nothing ultra progressive politicians whose fantasy idealistic and theoretical “plans” to solve San Francisco’s most important issues fail time after time.

    Haven’t you all yet had enough of the failed progressive “leadership”?

  4. Worth mentioning that Hillary Ronan just voted against approving a 500 unit building on a current parking lot that would have included 100 units of low income housing.

    Maybe it’s a historic parking lot like that historic laundromat.

    In order to end homelessness, by definition, the city needs housin.

    (PS, great article you two)

  5. Huh. It’s almost like wealth inequality harms everyone except those at the very top (you know, the ones who pay to make sure that policies keep on getting passed that widen that inequality further.)

  6. Thank you for this important reporting from the streets of our city. I wonder if authors Cheney and Jarrett could recommend (or consider writing) a comparative article studying other metro areas that have successfully reduced homeless encampments, and what strategies they used that worked? I was born in the Bay Area, and have seen the problem of homelessness balloon over the past decades, despite much rhetoric and well-meaning attempts at change. Obviously the current initiatives to build more affordable housing, micro-housing, and navigation centers might help mitigate or reduce street encampments… or they might make the Bay Area even more attractive to indigent folks coming from less welcoming climates… I’d love to read about other cities that have succeeded (or failed, and why) at implementing change

    1. DPH statistics demonstrate a strong correlation between increases in numbers of the unhoused and increases in cost of housing. It seems too simplistic, but stats also show that most (DPH thinks nearly 70%) of unhoused persons originated in the cities in which they continue to live. The unhoused did not learn of and make a beeline here to benefit from the city’s services. The high number of unhoused is a testament to the attractiveness of living in the Bay Area and a condemnation of its feckless elected officials (except Scott Wiener). The city could help alleviate rents by building all of the huge backlog of BMR housing that it allowed developers to avoid including on site by paying into the Mayor’s fund. But in nearly all instances attempts to build BMR or higher density housing outside the city center (and even on public lands) has aroused property owning constituents to push back against and silence local officials. And, as with all other penalties extracted by the city, the amounts payed by developers were inadequate for the full cost of such construction. Last I looked (during a public presentation by Grant Colfax and his well meaning crew) the city’s homeless services budget was around $360 million per year with another $300 million per year expected from new taxes that had been approved by the voters. I understand that every penny of the existing $360 million has always been spent on loyal service providers and consultants and could not be touched. But the other $300 million had not yet been doled out. So it was with the additional anticipated funding that–if we acted very fast before it was spoken for–the city might buy hotels, build navigation centers or (as Mayor Art Agnos had proposed) lease an old 2000 room cruise ship. Or are we the people already too late, again?

    2. LA seems to be making strides by converting old hotels into viable living options for people without homes. Why can’t SF start following the successful ideas of other cities? We’re accomplishing nothing!

  7. When we make obeying the building codes so expensive and arduous that people cannot afford to do so, they will go outside the law in order to build structures to get out of the weather. The only surprising thing is that people are somehow surprised by this.

    Probably people who have never had to sleep outside in a spot of cold weather.

    1. In NYC we just pick up all the homeless and place them into shelters. It works wonders. Streets stay clean. Dealers have less vulnerable people to prey on. All these individuals are mentally ill and addicts. We need to stop pretending otherwise. Letting them squat on the streets helps no one. Most die there. There is nothing progressive about these policies.

  8. Not directly stated: the Mission District with so many buildings built prior to 1906 is especially vulnerable to fires. The expectation is that when one building has a fire, the neighboring buildings will also be heavily damaged and many residents will be displaced.