Man interrupts press conference, blames 'homeless' for South Austin fire

Matt Michaelree was awake early Thursday morning when the under-construction condos next to his apartment complex caught fire.

"By the time I grabbed a few items and came back into my kitchen the laundry room was on fire and the fire was coming in," Michaelree said.

Michaelree says his apartment is likely a total loss.

During the Austin Fire Department's press briefing, Division Chief Thayer Smith was asked about the cause.

"I can tell you now that it will be undetermined unless we find some kind of other information," Thayer said.

But Michaelree, who was there at the press conference, shouted "homeless people!"

Smith was asked about that again later. "Not at all.  As far as we can tell the area around the building was all chained up," Thayer said.

But Michaelree had gotten in front of the cameras shouting "There are homeless in the area, they've been camping over here.  We've reported it to the city -- I went to the homeless forum and talked to the Mayor about it.  They've been camping in this area.”

Meanwhile Thayer could be heard on his radio: "I need APD on Bannister.  In front of the original fire building where the media is set up...ASAP."

Michaelree's complex is near Ben White Blvd. where residents have been reporting expanding homeless camps recently.  And about a block over is a building where the City of Austin is planning to put a new South Austin homeless shelter.

Michaelree says suspecting the fire was started by homeless camping is a reasonable suspicion to have. "You know we can't say it with certainty, however when you're seeing an increase in crime, you're seeing an increase in us making those phonecalls, you have to start asking uncomfortable questions like 'Are they related?'  Seems like it could be."

An Austin divided on homeless issues was evident at the Austin City Council's special-called meeting on Wednesday about clarifying changes the council made to city ordinances, legalizing camping, sitting and lying. "My little brother is a homeless drug addict and I love that one.  I honestly feel that if the laws weren't so lenient that he and his pregnant girlfriend might come home or go into rehab.  But right now they're camping at a Walmart," one speaker said. 

Others, thankful. "This is my home...this is what I carry with me is my sleeping bag.  I've been woken up in the middle of the night before at 2:00 in the morning for sleeping in front of the church and told that someone called the police and that I had to move," one speaker said.  

Many of those who continue to support council's actions brought race into the conversation. "As white people and particularly, also people who are well-off in this city we have this sense that we deserve to feel safe.  This is one of the underpinnings of our white supremacist culture that this city is ours, to take back," one speaker said.  

"I think public safety is an issue that affects all of us regardless of your race, creed or political orientation," Michaelree said.  "It just feels like they're not listening to us and it's falling on deaf ears."  

The Austin City Council will convene at 9 Friday morning to finish clarifying those ordinance changes.