AFD reports increase in fires started by homeless individuals

The Austin Fire Department says they have been seeing a huge increase in fires started by the homeless community, an issue they say increases during the colder months.

Early Wednesday morning, Austin Fire crews responded to a fire at a vacant home on East Cesar Chavez.

"Crews arrived [and] found smoke showing from the home fire in a back room that was quickly extinguished," said Division Chief Thayer Smith with the Austin Fire Department.

Chief Smith says the cause was determined to be a warming fire started inside the house by a homeless individual.

"[That person] admitted to the fact that they had been in the home and they had the fire in a container to attempt to stay warm," he said.

Chief Smith says fires started by the homeless are not uncommon. In fact, he says AFD responds to these sorts of fires regularly.

"Typically, I would say, as the weather gets colder during the winter, that a very conservative estimate is that we respond to these types of calls for warming fires, cooking fires, at least 5 to 10 times a shift," he said.

The Austin Fire Department says it could be more than that, and it just depends on the day. "That's probably a conservative estimate on how many times we go out and investigate," said Chief Smith.

Chief Smith says these fires are not exclusive to just vacant homes. It could be fires on the side of the road or in encampments for cooking or trying to stay warm.

Cleo Petricek with Save Austin Now says is not surprised to hear about the uptick in homeless-related fires.

"Obviously for the last three years has been seriously a major concern for us. The city has to have a serious plan for homeless individuals and what they have given us so far, what we've seen is is not enough," she said.

She believes the city needs to figure out solid housing and resourcing plans for the homeless to prevent problems like the fires.


In Early September, the city released numbers on its leading solution to house the homeless: The HEAL initiative. According to those numbers, 361 people were moved into bridge shelters, out of that number only 182 applied into housing programs, and only 94 moved into housing leaving the rest to go back on the streets.

The City of Austin’s Homeless Strategy Division updated those HEAL initiative numbers through Sept. 30. Those updated numbers say 361 people voluntarily moved to bridge shelters. Of that total, 200 have been enrolled in housing programs, 140 have successfully moved into a home, and 84 have returned to homelessness.

The City of Austin’s Homeless Strategy Division released this statement to FOX 7: "The HEAL Initiative is intended to resolve encampments that are particularly unsafe. The initiative’s successful rehousing efforts are only a small portion of the total number of individuals served and housed by our local homelessness response system."

"We have not even hit winter yet, and it's already getting close to freezing. This is not good," said Petricek.

AFD says they provide resources to the individuals involved when responding to homeless related fires.

"Certainly on the colder nights, if there's a shelter open, we'll try and get those folks, facilitate those folks getting to a shelter if needed, if they're willing, you know, giving them information about the community and city benefits that are available to them to try and keep them warm or get them help," said Chief Smith.