Blaze damages homeless haven

No one injured; firefighters subdue fire within 15 minutes

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Fire destroyed the contents of an abandoned building on Village Street Monday night, but none of the homeless who used the structure as a haven was injured, Capital City Fire and Rescue officials said today.

Capt. Pete Hettinger said two fire engines, an aerial truck, a rescue unit, an ambulance and 22 volunteer firefighters responded to the fire about 10 p.m.

The fire's cause hasn't been determined. There was no evidence of arson, he said. The fire marshal is investigating.

Hettinger said the building was used as a "flop house" for local homeless people, judging by what was in the building.

When firefighters arrived, 10-foot flames had engulfed the plywood over the windows on the second story, and smoke billowed from openings between boards on the first floor of the building that sat on a temporary foundation, he said.

"We managed to knock the fire down within 15 minutes," Hettinger said. "But it was a wood frame building so there were a lot of embers still smoldering in the wood. So we stayed another two hours or so to make sure we didn't have a rekindle."

Once it was out, firefighters went inside. Hettinger said they found charred mattresses and debris littering the floors.

"On the second story there was a stack of wood palettes supporting the ceiling," he said. "It was all pretty well charred and there was a lot of debris since people used that as a place to sleep, so it was pretty trashed already. But there were charred mattresses and little ends of pieces of material, melted garbage bags. It looked like your average garbage dump."

Joan Decker, executive director of the Glory Hole, a downtown homeless shelter and dining hall, said many homeless choose to sleep in abandoned buildings. She said those who can't stay in Glory Hole dormitories because they are too drunk or don't want to often will choose to sleep in abandoned buildings.

"Homeless still have freedom of choice," Decker said. "If they are drunk and want to sleep it off or if it's a man and a woman and they want to stay together for the night, which we don't allow, they find accommodations they can afford, which since they are homeless is not going to be a hotel. It's going to be an abandoned building. I don't know what the community can do about it."

Decker said building a "sleep-off center" may help to curb the problem. Most of the abandoned-building dwellers seem to be heavy drinkers, she said.

"It might be a practical consideration to have a place where they could sleep it off. And if people are considering tearing these buildings down, that's one option but there are still going to be homeless," she said. "And it would be a lot easier on everyone involved if they did not have to break in to find a place to sleep for the night."

Melanie Plenda may be reached at

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