Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 3, 2023.

Invisible No More

As the problem of homelessness grows in size and complexity around the world, many cities are reporting spikes in the number of fires affecting the homeless population. But new research into the problem, as well as lessons learned from innovative new programs launched by fire departments and public safety agencies, could pave the way for scalable solutions in North America and beyond.


lost everything in a fire. “I will never get back what I just lost. Nowhere close to it,” the 55-year-old Portland, Oregon, resident told aid workers in the wake of the blaze. 

Pattum was homeless at the time and living in a tent. Witnesses told police that after Pattum left for the day, a man approached his tent, doused it with an accelerant, lit it on fire, and fled. 

But when Pattum sought financial restitution for his losses, he was denied. The reason, he was told, was because he was homeless, and people experiencing homelessness have in some cases set fires intentionally to collect benefits. The Red Cross, which often offers housing and other recovery resources for people whose homes have burned in fires, couldn’t offer more than a hygiene kit and socks, Pattum told Street Roots, a Portland-based newspaper that covers homeless issues, in November. 

Eventually, the arsonist was caught and found guilty of reckless burning. Pattum never received any money from the case.

Pattum isn’t alone. Each year, Portland and scores of cities around the country report thousands of fires that impact the homeless as well as those who encounter and interact with that community: first responders, police, medical professionals, and relief agencies, to name a few. And the number of those fires is on the rise. In 2021, Portland Fire and Rescue reported more than 4,300 homeless-related fires, according to Street Roots—a staggering 445 percent increase over the 803 fires that had been reported by Portland fire officials in 2019. Similarly, the San Francisco Fire Department reported more than 3,500 homeless-related fires in 2021, a 75 percent increase since 2019. And in Los Angeles, homeless-related fires jumped roughly 150 percent, from about 3,700 in 2019 to over 9,000 in 2021, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD).


From 2016 to 2020 (the last year data was available), the estimated population of homeless people in the US grew from roughly 550,000 to more than 580,000, an increase of about 5.5 percent.

The share of people experiencing homelessness who live “unsheltered” has also increased significantly in recent years. In 2016, 32.1 percent of the US homeless population lived unsheltered; in 2020, that share had risen to 38.9 percent

Globally, an estimated 150 million people are homeless today, compared to about 100 million in 2005—a 50 percent increase in the past 17 years.

Sources: The National Alliance to End Homelessness, United Nations

The rise in these kinds of fires in the United States, experts say, is largely due to an increase in homelessness in general, brought on in part by economic upheaval and by an overheated housing market that is increasingly bumping rents and purchase prices beyond the means of more and more Americans. The homeless population in the US grew from roughly 550,000 people in 2016 to more than 580,000 people in 2020, the last year data was available. Globally, the United Nations has described the rise in homelessness in recent years as “alarming,” with estimates of the worldwide population of unhoused individuals topping 150 million in recent years—up from about 100 million in 2005. 

“Lack of shelter and affordable housing has led to an unfortunate reality where thousands of people are living on the streets [and must] resort to starting fires to stay warm or cook food,” Portland Fire Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty told Street Roots. “Those fires can grow out of control and put people in harm’s way.” Other reported causes of these blazes include arson, smoking, and using fire as a weapon. 
With fire and building code departments often limited in how they can enforce fire safety regulations inside homeless encampments and at similar locations, experts say solving the problem of homeless-related fires will largely come down to community outreach from public safety professionals and research to further define and examine the safety challenges within these environments. 

“In the United States, there’s no national building code, and there’s no federal agency responsible for regulation,” said Danielle Antonellis, founder of Kindling, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing fire safety inequality around the world. “Municipalities may not have sufficient capacity, resources, or even the power necessarily to do everything that they want to do. They’re in a very difficult situation.”


For many Americans, the prospect of homelessness is as close as the next paycheck—or the absence of one. By some estimates, more than 19 million households in the country, or nearly a third of all renters, spend more than half of their monthly income on housing. That disproportionate slice is an important factor in what is referred to as “housing insecurity,”  where a person or family’s living situation is tentative. 

When housing insecurity meets additional factors including chronic unemployment, disabilities, mental illness, and addiction, the slide into homelessness can accelerate from gradual to sudden. Homelessness can be a brief stretch of couch-surfing with friends and relatives, or it can be a prolonged series of squats in abandoned buildings. It can mean seeking refuge in shelters and other facilities designed to address the needs of the homeless, or it can mean foregoing those resources and taking up residence in a loosely organized tent city, one that offers a promise of community alongside crime, violence, and a host of other hazards.

TARGETED ATTACKS A woman stands amid the remains of her and her boyfriend’s possessions that were thought to have been intentionally burned at a homeless encampment in downtown Los Angeles in August. The use of fire as a weapon in such environments is just one factor in the growing problem of fire involving homeless populations around the world.  GETTY IMAGES

It is these impromptu encampments that generate many of the problems, including fire, that put people at risk and, in many cities, claim an increasing share of responder resources. What to do about these communities depends on who you ask. In October, for example, city officials in Tacoma, Washington, voted to enact a ban on any homeless encampment located within a 10-block radius of a homeless shelter. The ban, proponents said, would help to stem homeless-related fires and other emergencies at encampments throughout the city while also driving more people experiencing homelessness into shelters, where they can be connected with resources.

Within a day, however, the city faced numerous threats of lawsuits. More than 400 pages of public comments flooded officials’ inboxes, with many staunchly opposed to any such bans on homeless encampments.  

“We categorically reject a policing solution to homelessness,” one resident wrote in an email sent to the city. Another noted that “when I was in Seattle, the clearance and fencing off of The Jungle”—a 150-acre greenbelt area in the city known for its homeless encampments and crime—“led to an immediate explosion of tents in the downtown and neighborhoods to the north. It made the camping issue worse, not better.” 

Others, however, supported the Tacoma ban. One resident even felt it didn’t go far enough, and asked why the city would limit the ban to encampments located near shelters—why not ban them all? 

The back-and-forth in Tacoma is representative of many communities’ experiences as they struggle to address the issues of homelessness, homeless encampments, and the safety issues those environments can produce—issues that often put fire and building code departments in a difficult position. “The discussions I’m hearing from jurisdictions is that it comes down to the question of balancing people’s rights with maintaining their safety,” said Ray Bizal, director of Regional Operations at NFPA. “It’s not the same situation as shutting down a business that isn’t code-compliant. It can be more nuanced and political and controversial than that.” 

While officials may fear lawsuits for clearing camps in the name of safety, it seems that doing nothing can be just as legally risky. In Phoenix in 2020, for instance, a group of residents who lived and worked near a homeless encampment sued the city, alleging that its inaction in regard to cleaning up the camp impeded their safety. But when the city moved to clear a homeless encampment just last year, it was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for violating the rights of the people who called the camp home.

First responders operate at the crossroads of this conflict, and for firefighters in Los Angeles—a city often defined by its overwhelming homeless problem—each day is a reminder of the fire problem among the city’s estimated 70,000 homeless residents. On average, the LAFD responds to 24 homeless-related fires every day. “Because of Los Angeles’ topography, people experiencing homelessness are not only on our streets, but they are also living in dangerous situations in our riverbeds, mountainsides, washes, vacant buildings, recreational vehicles,” LAFD Public Information and Government Affairs Director Cheryl Getuiza said of the fires. As an indicator of the situation’s urgency, newly elected LA mayor Karen Bass used her first day in office, in December, to declare a state of emergency over the city’s homeless problem.


 The 2017 Skirball Fire in Los Angeles was traced to a cooking fire at a homeless encampment in a ravine. The resulting wildland blaze spread through the enclave of Bel-Air, destroying six homes, damaging a dozen more, and prompting widespread evacuations.  GETTY IMAGES


Bizal, who also lives in California, shared similar evidence of the regularity of homeless-related fires—and not just in Los Angeles. “When you drive along the freeway in San Diego, you notice that between almost every exit, on the embankment, there are burn scars where someone maybe had a tent and a fire,” he said. “It’s very visible.” LAFD has also observed fire being used as a weapon among the homeless population, Getuiza said—“unfortunately, we have seen fires start as a result of arguments that have escalated in our unhoused communities.”

To combat the growing number of homeless-related fires, the LAFD has taken major steps in recent years toward reaching out to the Los Angeles homeless community, providing it with fire safety education and even medical care.

In 2015, the LAFD launched a fleet of pickup trucks outfitted with 300-gallon water tanks known as Fast Response Vehicles (FRVs), which traverse the city to quickly respond to an emergency before an engine, truck, or ambulance arrives. Understanding the need to provide additional resources to people experiencing homelessness, the department diverted two of the resources to specifically offer fire safety education to community members, including people experiencing homelessness, as well as fire suppression in areas where a larger fire engine might struggle to access. Skid Row, a notorious and enormous homeless encampment in downtown LA, has its own FRV. 

Recognizing the medical needs of many people experiencing homelessness, in 2016 the LAFD started also staffing specialized units called Advanced Provider Response Units (APRU) with nurse practitioners or physician assistants paired with a firefighter/paramedic. These resources allow for a higher level of care on-scene, reducing ambulance transports to emergency departments in addition to clearing patients to be sent via taxi to the hospital. They also connect patients with social workers and other various city agencies to assist with their long-term well-being and permanent housing.

“Over the years, our members have gotten to know certain unhoused individuals by name,” Getuiza said. “At first, these communities can be a little skeptical, but when our members are there on a daily basis, talking to them, engaging with them, they are eventually welcomed.”

Models similar to the LAFD’s approach exist at fire departments and other emergency response agencies throughout the country, and it’s this kind of outreach-based approach that experts say is key to addressing the fire problem among people experiencing homelessness. 

“A part of any good community risk reduction program is identifying and addressing safety challenges among at-risk populations,” said Karen Berard-Reed, a senior community risk reduction strategist at NFPA. “If a community is seeing a large or rising number of fires in homeless encampments, for example, efforts should be made to reach out to and educate those communities on fire safety.” 

Faced with the nearly 450 percent spike in homeless-related fires from 2019 to 2021, Portland Fire & Rescue in Oregon has started partnering with homeless advocacy groups in the city to distribute fire safety education materials that warn of the dangers of lighting candles or having any kind of open flame inside tents. “You can have a warming fire, we just ask that you do it in a safe manner,” a fire department spokesman told reporters in October 2021. “Keep the fire in a metal container at least 25 feet away from anything flammable.”

In Taylors, South Carolina, firefighters didn’t need to see any troubling fire incident trends to take action. With a population of about 23,000 people and a poverty rate below the national average, homeless-related fires weren’t exactly rampant in Taylors. Even so, when local firefighters discovered a homeless man had suffered third-degree burns from a fire under a bridge in 2014, they began delivering food and fire safety messaging to local homeless individuals. 

“We’ve never really thought about doing fire prevention for the homeless, but that’s something Taylors is going to start doing now,” Assistant Fire Chief Bobby Van Pelt told local media. “We’re going to start visiting these people and trying to teach them about fire safety, especially in the wintertime when they’re trying to stay warm.” 


Efforts like those carried out by the LAFD and Taylors Fire Rescue are examples of the kinds of community outreach the fire service and other public safety professionals can undertake to help prevent homeless-related fires. But what remains lacking in many cases is a specialized approach to fire safety education for people experiencing homelessness. Not only can safety messaging crafted for housed individuals miss the mark when given to unhoused people, experts point out, but the typical channels used to disseminate information may also be ineffective at reaching homeless populations.

An NFPA-sponsored report published recently by Kindling, the nonprofit dedicated to addressing global fire safety inequalities, calls attention to this gap. According to the report, “most fire safety public education efforts by the fire services, schools, or non-profit organizations don’t target, or may struggle to reach, insecurely and vulnerably sheltered or housed populations and may not be contextually appropriate or sensitive to competing needs, wants, and risks faced by this population.” As an example, the report notes that fire safety messaging focused on electric stoves might be provided for people who are mostly cooking over open flames. 

Sarah Rehou, a senior research coordinator for the Burn Program at Hamilton Health Sciences in Hamilton, Ontario, ran into this problem in the winter of 2021, and she ended up working to find a solution to it. “We had been seeing patients admitted to the burn center who were homeless, while at the same time there was a ton of media coverage about fires occurring in encampments,” said Rehou, who at the time was working for the Ross Tilley Burn Centre in Toronto. Canada’s largest city is home to an estimated 18,000 people experiencing homelessness, and the number of annual deaths among those people has nearly doubled in the past three years, according to the Toronto Public Health department. Some of those deaths occurred in encampment fires. 

But when Rehou, who is also a first-year medical student at St. George’s University in Grenada, tried to start spreading fire safety and burn prevention messaging among Toronto’s homeless community, tools like blog articles and Instagram posts simply didn’t work. She also realized, just as the Kindling report indicates, that existing messaging didn’t cut it, either. That’s when she connected with local outreach workers who had spent time volunteering at homeless shelters and building relationships with locals experiencing homelessness. 

Armed with these connections, Rehou embarked on a boots-on-the-ground project to survey people experiencing homelessness about their encounters with, and perceptions of, fire, with the ultimate goal of producing a fire safety manual for homeless individuals. She and a team of frontline workers surveyed dozens of people, some of whom were newly homeless while others had been homeless for decades. They asked questions like “What do you use to build fires?” and “How do you think fires could best be prevented?”

The project was a success, and the result was a 12-page fire safety manual published in the spring of 2021. While some messaging found on its pages would be instantly familiar to anyone who’s shared or consumed standard, existing fire safety messaging—such as never leaving candles unattended—other parts were clearly written to be unique to the experience of living outside. 

In a summary of the project published last year in the Journal of Burn Care & Research, Rehou and the other researchers wrote that “the reality is that people are trying to survive freezing winters while sleeping outside, [and] this means that some safety standards are not possible, and the guide had to reflect that. For example, we practiced fire escape plans during training sessions and had to think about obstacles like tents with only one way out. A solution was to keep a utility knife inside and outside the tent in case one had to cut through to escape or to free someone.”

After the manual was published, Rehou and her team held training sessions for encampment residents; along with copies of the manual, they also distributed fire blankets, fire extinguishers, and first aid kits. It made a difference. One night, just hours after a training session had taken place at an encampment, a fire broke out there. “One of the people trained was able to jump out of their shelter and use a fire blanket to put out a fire before it got worse,” Rehou said. “We know that training works.” 

At the same time, she said, there is “much more to do.” Fires in Toronto’s homeless encampments have continued, including one that killed a man in March 2022 and another in November that led to a large explosion involving several propane tanks under an overpass.


As fire departments, public safety professionals, and others work to develop more education- and outreach-based solutions to the fire problem among people experiencing homelessness, experts say one potentially underrecognized spot to seek answers will be the fire-prone shantytowns that characterize urban centers in many developing nations. Fires in these locations—officially known as informal settlements—are common, and researchers have for years pursued solutions to the problem. 

In 2020, for example, researchers published a guide to improve fire safety in informal settlements. The 135-page document offers comprehensive guidance on everything from building relationships between the local fire service and informal settlement residents to teaching residents how to make the exterior of their dwellings more resistant to fire. Key to the document’s guidance is acknowledging, like Rehou and her team did in Toronto, that an array of limitations exist within such environments and that resulting solutions may bear little resemblance to what is considered fire-safe behavior in more developed nations or for housed individuals.

“Often, it’s simple and inexpensive interventions, such as increasing the number of water buckets available to residents, that provide a more reliable fire response method than fancy, proprietary suppression systems that require maintenance, are expensive, have a shelf-life, and may not be used correctly,” Richard Walls, a fire protection engineering professor at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, who helped publish the guide, told NFPA Journal for a story about the project. 


In Los Angeles, residents clean up debris left by a homeless encampment fire behind their homes. Residents fear the next fire may damage their homes. GETTY IMAGES

The Kindling report, which focuses on homeless-related fires within the US, cites the development of this guide. “Parallels can be drawn to and lessons learned from fire issues in informal settlements,” the report says. 

Antonellis, Kindling’s founder and lead author of the report, doubled down on that point in a recent interview with NFPA Journal. “This is a perfect example of where we can learn a lot from informal settlements,” she said. “Many of us in the US have had the luxury of a building regulatory system that prevents fires from becoming conflagrations in urban environments, whereas in informal settlements, just as in homeless encampments, we can see that rapid fire spread from dwelling to dwelling. I think there’s a lot to be learned from around the world.” 

Ideally, Antonellis said, more national attention to the fire problem among people experiencing homelessness will drive researchers, homeless advocacy groups, and public safety professionals to seek out solutions. After all, while local efforts like the ones in Los Angeles, Portland, Toronto, and Taylors, South Carolina, are critical and can make an impact, widespread change will likely only come from larger national efforts—similar to how the landmark 1973 report America Burning spurred sweeping policy changes aimed at reducing fires and fire deaths throughout the country. And that starts with simply sounding the alarm on the problem.

“That’s the reason we titled our report ‘The Invisible US Fire Problem’,” said Antonellis. “Of course, to certain fire departments it’s not invisible. To the populations experiencing homelessness or living in slum conditions or in inadequate housing, it’s far from invisible. We’re saying at a national level, we don’t see this problem and we don’t see what’s happening around it. As a research group, we’re trying to figure out how to share this experience more nationally so it’s no longer invisible.”

ANGELO VERZONI is manager of content marketing at NFPA. 
Top photograph: Getty Images