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A resident of the East 12th Street homeless encampment clears debris following a fire. Photo by Julia Kane.

Homeless Oaklanders struggle to rebuild lives after fire destroys encampment

on October 28, 2019

Shortly after 2:30 pm on a Sunday, Dennis Rubio wakes up to the crackling sound of burning brush. Something is very wrong. He crams his feet into a pair of beat-up red and white Air Jordans, grabs his backpack, and scrambles out from under his tarp.

The call comes into Oakland’s 911 dispatch center at 2:41 pm on October 20. There is a fire at the homeless encampment on East 12th Street between 17th and 18th Avenues—the second fire in the past two weeks along the row of tents, haphazard residences, motor homes and cars that stretches for two blocks. A previous blaze on October 8 displaced approximately 12 people.

There have been 158 confirmed fires in homeless encampments in Oakland between January and September of this year, according to Michael Hunt, Oakland Fire Department’s chief of staff. This fire is large enough that it will attract some attention. Later in the evening, local newspapers will run a few sentences about the incident and television stations will show a short smartphone video. But what happens after the fire trucks pull away? What do people who are already struggling do when they lose all of their belongings?

Haroutioun Manoukian is sleeping in his van when he hears a neighbor yell, “Get out the car! Get out the car!” He sees the thick black smoke and tries to start his van, but it won’t start. As the flames get closer, he grabs a dark blue folio containing his immigration papers and jumps out without anything else—not even a pair of shoes.

At 2:46 pm, sirens and horns blare as Oakland police block the streets and Oakland Fire Engine 4 arrives on scene. Flames are devouring shacks made of pallets, tires, box springs and tarps. Manoukian’s van is completely engulfed. As water from the firefighters’ hose hits the fire, it emits a deafening screech as black smoke turns to white steam. Within four minutes, two more engines and a truck are on scene.

“I never thought I’d be in this situation,” says Rubio, arms crossed. Rubio, who is 30 years old and originally from El Salvador, has been homeless for about ten years. About a year ago, he recounts, he was living with his mom and girlfriend in a motorhome near the corner of San Leandro Street and 47th Avenue when it caught fire. He and his mom couldn’t afford a storage unit, so all of their things, including photos, were crammed into the motorhome. Losing the photos made it feel like “some part of my life was gone—like it never happened,” he says.

By 2:52 pm, firefighters have knocked down the fire. They rake burnt debris out of the back of the van, making sure there are no more hot spots. Rubio just moved into the East 12th Street encampment. Up until two days ago, he lived in the encampment by the High Street Home Depot, which homeless residents call “The Community of Grace.” He’s not sure where he’ll sleep tonight.

At 4:08 pm, the roof of the van starts smoking again. The fire engine moves closer and blasts the spot with a stream of water. Patrick Payopay, another man who just lost nearly all of his possessions, watches the firefighters from the shade of a nearby motorhome. Payopay says he worked for the City of Alameda’s maintenance department for 16 years, mainly on streets and sewers. He still has family in Alameda, but lost contact with them when he lost his phone. “Once you get over here, you just get sucked in,” he says. “Day after day it’s the same—I don’t know how to explain it.” He’s lived in the East 12th Street encampment for about a year but says it “seems like forever.”

At 4:36 pm, two volunteers from the Red Cross arrive. Normally when a fire destroys a homeless encampment, the fire department alerts the Red Cross, though sometimes the residents call first. The Red Cross dispatches at least two volunteers from their roster of 50. Today’s fire has directly affected seven people. When the white SUV with the Red Cross logo pulls up, at least twice that number crowd the vehicle, asking for emergency relief.

At 4:59 pm, two men from the Oakland Public Works Department drive up in a flatbed truck. They set up an orange traffic barrel and cones with yellow caution tape strung in between. They leave 11 minutes later without saying a word to any of the homeless residents. S.S., who asked to be identified only by his initials, says he wishes that they would at least tell him when someone will be back to clean up the burnt debris. He wants to start rebuilding.

“I’m new as a homeless,” says S.S., standing in mud created by the firefighting water. At 51 years old, he has been homeless for about a year. He used to be a painter in Sacramento, but then, as he tells it, he got into some trouble and went to prison. He says that when he was released, he found out that his stepmother had cancer, so he moved into her house in Oakland to help care for her. She died six months later, and S.S. had nowhere else to go but the street. Now, he tries to help others by stockpiling extra food and clothes and sharing them freely.

At 5:05 pm, CBS San Francisco shows a fifteen second clip of firefighters unleashing a torrent of water onto the blaze. “It appears a homeless encampment went up in flames. There’s no word on if anyone was injured in the fire or what started it,” says anchor Brian Hackney.

As residents wait for the Red Cross to finish processing their information, Manoukian starts pulling the charred remains of his things from his burnt-out van. Someone has given him a pair of black flip-flops with blue straps, so he is no longer barefoot. “My everything is gone. Everything,” he says, shaking his head.

Haroutioun Manoukian looks at the remains of his burnt-out van, where he was living before the fire. Photo by Julia Kane.
Haroutioun Manoukian looks at the remains of his burnt-out van, where he was living before the fire. Photo by Julia Kane.

Manoukian says that he came to the U.S. as a refugee from Syria 32 years ago with his family. He’s frustrated that wealthy residents don’t do more to help the homeless. “People in Alameda, they help people outside the U.S., not here,” he says, gesturing to the flattened encampment. “Maybe they give you $15, $20—that’s one pizza. Then, next day, you’re on your own.”

At 5:49 pm, a wisp of smoke begins rising from a pile of ash. D.C., who also asked to be identified only by her initials, walks over casually in her dirty white socks and hot pink slip-ons and dumps a bottle of water onto it. Before the fire, D.C. had been living in a homemade shack with a friend for about two months. Her stomach protrudes beneath her baggy Nike jacket—she is nearly eight months pregnant. She says she is 29 years old, but she does not look it. Her baby, a girl, is due on December 9. She hasn’t been able to make it to the OB/GYN regularly. It’s difficult because she doesn’t have a phone.

At 6:03 pm, not long before sunset, the Red Cross volunteers begin handing out a limited number of small tents, blankets and toiletry kits. There are not enough tents to go around; the Fire Department told them that only five or six people were affected. Provided they have an ID, those who lost their residences in the fire receive a $125 MasterCard gift card—though the amount can vary based on Red Cross funding.

The East 12th Street residents start clearing the charred debris from the median, their bare hands black with soot. They have no place else to go, so they’ll pitch their tents here, in the mud. S.S. didn’t receive a tent. He says he’ll try to find some cardboard instead.

At 6:50, the Red Cross volunteers hand out the last gift card, and soon after they drive away. The temperature dips into the 50s as the sky grows dark.

At 8:38 pm, the Bay Area News Group posts a short article on several of their websites. Eventually, the Oakland Public Works Department will haul away the burnt shell of Manoukian’s van and clear the rest of the debris. Shortly after that, residents will rebuild, cobbling together scrap wood, tires, tarps—whatever they can find. But for now, as the air grows colder, they settle in for a long night.

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