A Fox News affiliate in Portland requested public data on the number of times city firefighters are called out to fires started in homeless camps and the results were stunning.
“Our call volume does have an increased amount that is a result of some kind of emergency or crisis that is happening with our homeless population,” said Lt. Rich Chatman with Portland Fire & Rescue. “That’s a fact of life and we’ve just really come to understand that this is part of our job now.”
The FOX 12 Investigators requested data for fires started in homeless encampments from July 2017 to July 2019.
It showed Portland Fire & Rescue responded to more than 1,000 fires in those two years. It also showed they’re usually responding to these fires several times a day.
Take May 29 of this year: Data shows Portland crews responded to 10 fire calls at homeless camps.
The actual number of fires was 1,230 so, on average, they’re responding to two a day. The story notes that earlier this year the firefighters started identifying every fire they respond to as either homeless related or not so they can better estimate the percentage of resources these calls are using.
I find the sheer number of fires involved here pretty stunning but I was curious how this compares to their normal workload. In FY17, the annual report shows they responded to 11,168 “Fire Incidents and Reported Fires.” In the FY18 report, the summary is different. It shows there were 3,283 “Actual Fire Incidents.” Obviously they’ve changed how they count fires and now seem to be excluding reported fires that didn’t turn out to be actual fires. It’s not clear how many of the 1,230 fires at homeless camps (over two years) were of the actual variety but this is definitely a significant chunk of their workload considering homeless people living outside in Portland (about 2,000) represent less than half of one percent of the city’s total population (nearly 650,000).
What is all of this costing the city? The fire department has an annual budget of $120 million. It’s hard to estimate how much that would change if the number of calls dropped by 600 a year, but clearly it costs some significant amount of money.
Arguably it would make more sense to spend that money on providing people with housing that doesn’t require them to heat or cook with potentially dangerous fires rather than responding to disasters. But I don’t think we can assume that everyone living on the streets is willing or able to change their life. As the LA Times reported this week, the percentage of homeless people with mental illness and/or substance abuse problems could be between 67 percent and 75 percent. Those people are going to need a lot more than subsidized rent to put their lives together. That’s especially going to be true if the offer of housing comes with expectations that residents will remain clean.
Here’s the Fox 12 report. As always, whatever is happening in Portland is probably happening in LA and Seattle as well.