Dear PoPville – How Can We Stop This Homeless Man From Setting Fires in Columbia Heights?

Alley between the 1400 block of Columbia and Irving St, NW

Dear PoPville,

Since the construction staging site went up in the alleyway between columbia and irving at the 1400 block in late august to early september 2012 there has been a homeless man living under the stairs of the condemned church. He is a hoarder and had managed to amass a huge pile of stuff in and around the stairs. Basically kept to himself, was just an eyesore and made us nervous.

However, the past few weeks he has set 3 fires. The first got out of control and spread into the church, due to all of the hoarded stuff in the alleyway. We cleaned out the alleyway and didn’t come back for a week, when i smelled the second fire. I am writing to you at 2 AM early Thursday, right after the 3rd fire has been put out. I have been told to call 911 immediately when I see him, but since that doesn’t seem to work, I was wondering what else can be done on my part to take care of this problem.

Yes, I am sympathetic to his plight but he is putting our lives at risks by setting these fires. In addition, I have been the one to smell it first due to our proximity to the fires and now I’m fearing for my safety.

Any and all suggestions would be helpful. Thanks.

Perhaps the DC Mental Health Mobile Response Team could intervene:

Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES): 202-673-9319 (24hrs, 7 days per week)
Mobile Crisis Services (MCS): 202-673-9300 (9am -1am, 7 days per week)
Homeless Outreach Program (HOP): 202-673-9124 (9am -8pm , M-F)

38 Comment

  • Take away his matches?

  • This alley is quite possibly the worst stretch of anything in Columbia Heights, and sadly, this portion of it is actually NICER than the rest of it. I’ve emailed Jim Graham about the open air toilet near the 14th Street side and have received no encouraging news, other than a note than once the construction is complete, he’d like to do something about it. I’m not sure if construction will ever be complete in that area, especially if the city is planning to build a new homeless shelter on Irving.

    311 is completely unresponsive. That alley could actually be a nice, livable space. Under the asphalt there used to be a nice brick. I’m surprised Donatelli hasn’t already brought this issue up, seeing as they own real estate stretching across large portions of it.

    As for the guy setting fires, maybe contact the 3rd District commander and ask for cops to start patrolling the area more, in case they see him?

  • Seems like the best solution would be to have him arrested for arson. Mental health services are not likely to help much these days.

  • I would suggest contacting your local ANC rep. Mine is always very helpful with neighborhood situations.

  • It was below freezing (31F at DCA) and windy last night. He was outside the entire night.

    I think it’s pretty clear why he lit the fire and what it would take to get him to stop: some help.

    • C’mon. This guy is putting the entire neighborhood (families, children, businesses) in mortal danger. Protect yourself OP.

      • That’s sounds like the rationale of people who cut across 4 lanes of traffic to make a U turn because they missed their exit. Let’s all just put peoples lives at risk to convenience ourselves.

        • I would not be happy if somebody were trying to keep warm by lighting a fire in my back yard, either, but trying to keep from freezing to death is fundamentally different from trying not to miss your exit and having to drive an extra few miles. Your analogy is the type of analogy made by somebody who cannot tell the difference between a hundred dollar bill and a quarter.

          • That makes sense because fire isn’t dangerous at all.

          • Of course fire is dangerous. The reason that is a weak-ass analogy is because missing your exit is trivial, freezing to death is (to most people) not. Although I do not desire to burn to death in a fire or die in a car accident, I would be more forgiving of somebody who was trying to keep himself alive than of somebody who was trying to save a couple minutes. Perhaps you would not, and that is your prerogative.

            I’ve missed my exit lots of times. If I miss it, I just keep going and take the next one. I’m grateful to say that I’ve never had to spend the night outside when the temperature was below freezing. I have no idea what the hell I would do in that situation.

          • How does one freeze to death when the outside temperature is 31F? Are you assuming he was submerged in water?

          • The greater point isn’t the precise temperature at which a person is likely to actually freeze to death, it is that the inconvenience associated with missing your exist on the highway is absolutely nothing like the inconvenience associated with being homeless and sleeping outdoors when the temperature is in the low 30’s.

          • @logic. “freeze to death” does not mean “freeze solid like a popsicle.” One can easily die of exposure at 40 or even 50 degrees – without being immersed in water. One old lady in my neighborhood died of exposure in her 65 degree house – she didn’t turn the heat up because she was poor and when you get hypothermic the mind starts doing strange things.

            Obviously this guy should be prevented from setting fires. Preferrably by giving him help – which I think all of us who are lucky enough to have jobs and not be nuts should be happy to pay taxes to pay for. If he’s too nuts to be given help though, then perhaps the only remaining option is for him to freeze to death or shiver and survive through the night, or be locked up for setting fires. Whatever happens though, we should have compassion for him, and try to have some understanding of his circumstances instead of making comments about how you can’t freeze to death at 31 degrees without having a clue what we’re talking about.

          • @ Logic – never has a name been so inapt. Google “hypothermia” and educate yourself.

          • You should go find the guy a steel drum so he can contain his fire, some firewood would be desirable as well. Maybe you could take him into your home and provide him a warm meal and a nice warm shower. Don’t give him any alcohol and make sure he’s not elderly, both would significantly increase his chances of hypothermia, much more so than 31F.

    • Fat Tony: Bart, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?

      Bart: No.

      Fat Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?

      Bart: Uh uh.

      Fat Tony: And, what if your family don’t like bread? They like… cigarettes?

      Bart: I guess that’s okay.

      Fat Tony: Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?

      Bart: Hell, no.

  • What does this guy look like? In Sept 2007 I called the cops on a guy setting fire behind my building. The Fire Dept came, but the cops didn’t bother to show up.

    I argued with him and he said something about spirits. He quickly snapped back to reality and ran off.

    He was mid-late 40’s African male with an accent. Very skinny, short hair, dark skinned, 5’9ish.

  • Have you/the police tried talking to/asking him? He himself might be able to give you the best solution.

  • Perhaps we could study the film ‘Home Alone’ for some tips on how to win this battle. There is only one villain instead of two, so it should be 50% easier to deter him and re-claim the alley.

  • He should be arrested for his safety and yours. It’s sad but I can’t understand anything less than a zero tolerance policy when it comes to arson.

    • Arson does not mean what you appear to think it means. If he were to set a building on fire on purpose, that is arson. If he were to set a pile of trash on fire to try to keep warm, and the building were to catch on fire as a result, that is dumb as sh!t and is negligent, but is not arson any more than your cigarette or or candle or space heater or stir fry is arson.

      • I’m only a lawyer on wikipedia, but:

        for purposes of common law arson “malicious” means action creating a great risk of a burning. It is not required that the defendant acted intentionally or willfully for the purpose of burning a dwelling.

        • Fair enough, but we live in an actual place with an actual statute, as opposed to common law or wikipedia notion thereof. That isn’t how it works here.

          • We most certainly DO live in a place with common law. The fact that we also live in a place with plenty of statutes doesn’t throw out the former.

          • Wong johnv. The issue is one of criminal law. Statutes, not common law, are now the source of criminal law in the US.

      • In D.C. your probably right. See D.C. Code 22-301 and Gilmore v. United States 742 A.2d 862 (DC 1999). (I say probably because the government could well argue that his intent was to burn the building, or that his conduct was so egregious that it amounted to such an attempt and the D.C. Arson statute criminalizes attempt to burn a dwelling, not just the actual burning of it.)

        You should know, however, many jurisdictions have taken away the common law elements of arson, and this exact conduct, lighting a fire to keep warm near a or adjacent to a building would indeed fall squarely within their arson statutes.

    • Arrest for arson and then have gim involuntarily committed (rather than criminally prosecuted, since for that they would likely release him pending trial)? He clearly is a danger to others and himself.

  • Here is the number for the fire investigation unit of DC FEMS, 673-3370. Call them and explain the problem. They should be able to take some affirmative action

    • “affirmative action”?!?!? DC FMS can ensure there’s a workable mix of black/white, crazy/sane, tall/short, imported/domestic arsonists? Maybe the ol’ District is more efficient than I ever imagined.

  • Here’s a little more history on him. He’s lived in the alley since at least 2011, when I moved into the area. He used to live in a “tent” he constructed there, in the midst of the parking lot, and he even ran some power lines into it from the nearby lamp post. His possessions spanned at least 6 parking spots or so. I’ve seen him lighting boxes on fire and it seems to be mostly for amusement, not to keep warm. He lights them on the ground right in the midst of or next to his possessions, and he pushes them around. He’s not hovering over them or anything like that to keep warm. Of course his stuff catches on fire every once in a while – here’s a picture of a fire that he started last April – This fire destroyed 3 cars, and almost caught the scaffolding of the nearby building on fire. The fire was about 40 feet long by 10 feet wide by 10 feet tall when the fire department arrived. He told the police that he area accidentally caught fire while he was cooking. Maybe true. Maybe not.

    The area was cleaned up and he came back to live there soon after. He was “evicted” when the construction staging area was built over the parking lot, so he moved next to the church in the photo in this story. I’ve seen him lighting more things on fire, and have called 911 on him myself.

    BTW – interesting side note – do you know that the 911 operators in DC talk for about 20 seconds before you can even start talking to them? “911 this is operator number ____ district _____ blah blah blah what’s your emergency?”

    Anyways, I haven’t seen him since this latest fire a couple weeks ago, but I’m sure he’s just moved somewhere else and will do this again. Maybe he’ll move back into the alley. He definitely seems to have mental and/or alcohol problems, as he sometimes randomly yells at passersby.

    I’m not sure myself exactly how this should be handled. I didn’t mind him living in the alley but I do mind him setting the place on fire, and it seems that you can’t have one without the other. I suspect that the police aren’t aware that the various fires in the alley have all been by the same person. Perhaps someone a little more motivated than me could go down to the police station and ask about him?

    • Also, I’m pretty sure he’s got somewhere else to go when the weather gets really bad. He doesn’t sleep there when it’s really cold or rainy.

      • dude – is there a way we could get into to contact? I’ve talked to the fire investigator today and she is looking into any security camera footage in the alleyway. However, she said that as no one has seen him setting the fires, just the aftermath it is going to be hard to do anything concrete.

        I moved here in july so i didn’t know this was a long history. Any help would be appreciated, even if it is just to establish the pattern of behavior.

    • So much for the assumptions that the guy was just struggling to stay warm/alive.

  • +1 for the “dude” and sharing info

  • I think someone needs to call Smokey the Bear. Lets get this dude a metal barrel to conduct his arson/warming projects. Also, maybe the Criminal Defense Attorney can give this man some pointers. Go site that code to that crazy dude, have you ever talked to him? Its like rationalizing with a plant.

  • Just wanted to thank PoP, the readers, and DC services for helping us act on the problem. Today, we had a whole team in the alley scoping out the issue. Big thanks to Tomi Rucker and for Lt. Steen for swiftly taking action and pointing us to people who could help out.

  • we are looking for our mental ill brother, it seems as though this might be him. please contact us at 682-557-5166 or 337-254-8084 please. His name is Davis Smith from Lafayette Louisiana. We are his sisters Janice Smith and Rose Smith. THANK YOU!

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