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Fire at Kansas Avenue safe parking site kills homeless woman

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Tragedy hit San Luis Obispo County when a fire broke out at a county safe parking site, killing one of the people who was parked and sleeping there.

At around 6 a.m. on Feb. 15, a homeless woman sheltering at the county-run Kansas Avenue safe parking site died in a fire that broke out in her motorhome. Her pet cats also succumbed to the flames. County officials requested to keep her name anonymous until her next of kin was notified. The county Fire Department hadn't confirmed the cause of the fire as of press time.

DEADLY FIRE Homeless participant Nick Watson said that before fire engines arrived, almost 100 people tried to put out the fire and save the RV resident but the flames were too strong. - PHOTO TAKEN FROM CAL FIRE SLO TWITTER
  • Photo Taken From Cal Fire SLO Twitter
  • DEADLY FIRE Homeless participant Nick Watson said that before fire engines arrived, almost 100 people tried to put out the fire and save the RV resident but the flames were too strong.

"More people could have gotten hurt trying to save her. There are 100 people out there, trying to get in, breaking windows, using every freaking fire extinguisher we had. It didn't even phase the fire," said Nick Watson, an homeless individual who uses the parking site and witnessed the fire. "No one could have saved that lady. It went up so quick, and right where she sleeps."

Watson and his wife have been living at the Kansas Avenue site since September 2021, close to when it opened. Initially, the parking area could accommodate 20 vehicles, but the Watsons told New Times that about 100 people seek shelter there now, which prompted authorities to start a waiting list. A county press release said that 80 to 90 people are present at the site on any given night.

"The county kind of pushed everyone there by passing a no camping law," Watson said.

He added that the flames could have spread to nearby RVs, but county officials now have the people who park there space out their vehicles. Jack Lahey, the director of homeless services at Community Action Partnership of SLO (CAPSLO), told New Times that vehicle distancing took place three weeks ago under the guidance of Joe Dzvonik, the former program manager of the Department of Social Services' homeless services unit.

"The county was the administrator of the site. Joe walked the site with the SLO Fire Department, and on their recommendation, spaced out everybody on site," Lahey said. "If that did not happen, it would have been probably much worse."

CAPSLO will be taking over administration of the safe parking site in terms of linking participants with services and resources. Lahey said they've started getting to know the participants better to offer more robust case management.

"What happened was incredibly tragic, and what we're providing on site is support for participants. We have partnerships with SLO County Mental Health, we're offering grief and loss groups ... individual counseling. Our outreach workers and safe parking specialists are on site today [Feb. 15]. We're going to partner with Salvation Army to support the memorial service," Lahey said.

Homeless individuals who use the parking site are helping out too. Hours after the woman's death, two crowd-funding efforts were launched to help pay for her funeral and memorial service.

Jeff Al-Mashat, the current program manager of the county's homeless services unit, told New Times that the site is equipped with fire extinguishers every 100 feet, some of which were deployed during the fire. Additional safety measures will be declared through an on-site message board.

"We ordered 20 new heavy duty fire extinguishers that were delivered yesterday [Feb. 15]. We worked with CAPSLO to provide smaller fire extinguishers to each of the people staying there. We're also looking at doing some type of fire safety class," Al-Mashat said. Δ

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