About Yesterday’s Shuttle Bus Fire

bus fire
Photo by Keith Krosinsky

“Dear PoPville,

Today [Tuesday] while I was walking home from work up North Capital St I witnessed smoke that started to pour out of a shuttle bus that was parked on the closed off section of the O St NE unit block. This smoke quickly turned dark black and I proceeded to phone in what was apparently a fire to 911. As I did so large flames began to emerge from the vehicle, and a number of apparently homeless people began to exit from a number of other similar shuttle buses parked nearby. One of these people thanked me for phoning in the fire but that proceeded to immediately ask if I had any money. The fire quickly engulfed the vehicle and I could feel that heat of the flames from at least 25 yards away. I just hope that no one was trapped in that bus.

I thought that it was worth writing in about this issue for a number of reasons.

I have noticed that this odd section of O St NE, which is fenced off at both ends and contains a number of apparently disused shuttle buses has become something of a squatter camp for homeless people and I have often noticed them milling about the immediate area during the evenings. This is an area near the Washington Firehouse Restaurant (somewhat ironic) and and the NOMA metro station and this block adds a particular level of blight to an area that has been improving in recent years. I don’t understand why this street is shut off, why these buses are haphazardly parked in the area and why it has been allowed to become a defacto camp for homeless people. Apparently something went wrong (to my untrained eye it appeared that an accelerant might have been involved as the fire spread extremely quickly), and this would seem to demonstrate the type of public safety hazard that squatter camps can impose.

I also wanted to bring up an issue that has been discussed on PoP recently, namely 911 call response times. My call to 911 was immediately answered (a good thing since I was apparently the first person to phone it in) and fire trucks were dispatched before the call was over. DC Fire & EMS arrived within 5 minutes of my call and quickly extinguished the fire. Not sure if the quick response time was due to it being a vehicle fire but I thought it was worth mentioning that, at least in this case, DC 911 and emergency services performed as any DC resident would hope.”

Photo taken 7:10, Tuesday by Rob Rutledge.

10 Comment

  • I believe Doug Jemal owns the land on both sides of O Street on this block and since it is not a through street (it can’t cross the sunken North Capitol) he’s somehow been able to close it off to the public.

  • I was at Stanton Park around this time and was wondering what the smoke was…I guess this was it. I agree something should be done to disperse these squatter camps…I don’t think unused buses just burst into flames randomly when not even on…but that’s just my opinion

  • There are a ton of homeless people in that immediate area because just across North Capitol is So Others Might Eat (SOME). During the day, they feed homeless and provide care and medical services and DC shelters van over the homeless who eat, then spend the remainder of the day camped out around the neighborhood. North Capitol between New York Avenue and Florida Avenue during the day is terrible.

    I fully support what SOME does and understand the complex issues we face in dealing with the homeless, but I fail to see how aggregating them together anywhere is helpful. And as the OP noted, this neighborhood has dramatically changed in the last few years and I cannot see how the dam won’t soon break and North Capitol sees the redevelopment everywhere around it has seen. A greenway across North Cap Street connecting O street on both sides would be pivotal to this. But until SOME moves and Ben’s Liquors closes, I cannot see this happening.

    • Why should they move? Because all homeless services need to be relegated to low income neighborhoods? It’s not like people EOTR really want homeless people hassling them all day either.

      • Homeless shelters/services are a pretty classic case of “not in my backyard” — things that most people agree are worthwhile and should be provided, but that they don’t particularly relish having nearby. As a result, they tend to be located where there’s less money and fewer squeaky wheels to object — why do you think this isn’t in Georgetown or Cleveland Park?
        It sounds as though the shelters and perhaps S.O.M.E. need to do a better job of giving homeless people somewhere to go and something to DO during the day other than just hang out in the neighborhood.

        • These are all good points although I would like to point out that it appeared that the buses were being used as a permanent shelter. The people who were exiting the adjacent buses as the fire broke out were carry bags with what looked like their belongings in them and it appeared from the look of the buses that they had been lived in for some time. It would certainly be great if S.O.M.E. could provide something for these people to do during the day, but the root of the problem seems to be DC’s ongoing homeless crisis and lack of adequate shelter space.

          I also wanted to clarify that there is no reason that S.O.M.E. should have to relocate now that the neighborhood is becoming a nicer place. However, large crowds of people “hanging out” from dusk till dawn at the open air drug market at the intersection of Florida Ave and North Capital St, and what was (and possible will remain) a squatter camp on a O St NE are issues that the city should address.

      • I didn’t say SOME should move, I just said little was likely to change until they do.

        That said, SOME owns the property out of which they operate and will no doubt benefit from the development around them as everyone else does. You could make the argument that if their objective is to provide the highest and best available services to homeless people in the city, they might be able to do more by selling the building, turning a profit, and moving to a cheaper area to continue doing what they are doing. But again, I’m not arguing they should or must do anything. I’m just noting that until they do, there are going to be a great deal of homeless people wandering around the immediate vicinity. That’s just a fact.

        I would also argue that aggregation isn’t particularly useful either. As OP notes below, it has contributed to drug activity in the area. I have lived near SOME for a while now and all I can say is I have had very few problems with any of the homeless who are in the neighborhood during the day, but there have been incidents of verbal assaults, public urination and defecation in the street or alleys in the neighborhood, theft, public drunkeness, etc. Just a few weeks ago, a homeless person was stabbed by another one just a block from my house. As noted above, with the growing desirability of Truxton Circle and NOMA and Bloomingdale, the dam may break eventually on the NE and NW unit blocks along North Capitol between Florida and New York, but I doubt it will until the prevalence of homeless people in the area changes. In the meantime, the gentrification around the area is going to create a tense dynamic. But to be clear, I was never saying SOME needed to do anything. They own their property and until some developer offers them a pretty penny for it, I doubt much will happen and those couple of blocks of North Cap will continue to look like a boarded up war zone.

  • Yep. Half the (abandoned?) vehicles parked on the north side of that block are used for sleeping, bathroom breaks and cooking (ahem) by less fortunate neighbors. It’s fenced off from the west end, with a nice giant hole cut in the fence. It’s a dead zone, lined by the traffic sewers of New York Ave and Florida Ave.

  • Where is the compassion? The problem here is that there is a services gap and people who clearly need better care are not getting it not that there are homeless people holding back development.

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