HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Jose Maldonado assessed the damage to his friend’s charred red Jaguar.
Intense heat from a fire on Swatara Street melted the taillights and much of the back bumper of the car that was parked in the driveway.
Maldonado said he wasn’t surprised to see fire in the vacant home.
“[Homeless] go in there and try to heat up cans, and it gets out of control,” he said. “They throw too much in there to burn, then poof.”
Harrisburg fire officials could not determine a cause, but believe Maldonado’s assessment is correct.
Similar incidents happened on Chestnut Street where a fire began in an abandoned floor of a row home. An abandoned car was also burned and ruled arson. In all three cases, it’s likely homeless were seeking heat sources and may have set the fire to keep warm.
Maldonado believes the numerous blighted buildings in the neighborhood are more than just an eyesore.
“It’s just asking for trouble leaving those empty houses open,” he said. “People come in looking for heat and stuff. There’s a lot of homeless out here.”
One woman who didn’t want to be identified said she heard blasts coming from the fire on Swatara Street.
“We heard the explosion, like ‘boom’,” she said, “real big explosion.”
Residents in living between Crescent, Hummel and Swatara Street to Kittatinny believe the desolate housing stock and lack of city resources to fight “ghost landlords” and demolish blight leave buildings vulnerable.
“We knew this was going to happen, though, eventually,” she said. “I knew it because we see people go in and out of there all the time.”
According to a 2015 homeless report, there are roughly 500 known homeless in Harrisburg. Bethesda Mission’s Chuck Wingate said 104 beds were filled overnight, shy of the 150 it typically averages during cold winter months.
Wingate said when temperatures drop below freezing, they typically forgo their capacity mark and take anyone in for the night, but that does not mean everyone will take advantage of the resources.
As Wingate and the report pointed out, those who are “independent” or drug addicts usually refuse help and live in “abandominiums”.
“That’s crazy. They need to tear them all down,” Maldonado said.
In a 2014 special report on blight, Harrisburg codes director Dave Patton said demolishing blighted homes is not the answer.
The woman says she took matters into her own hands to board up a vacant home next door after seeing homeless go in and out and almost ran into legal trouble.
“I was boarding it up for my safety. I live right next door,” she said. “A cop told me I could not cover it up because it is not my property.”
With colder temperatures ready to steadily dip, many hope their homes remain standing come the spring.
“We’re all scared because these old row houses could all go up,” she said.