Cities across Canada are reporting a rise in fires, sometimes deadly, in tents and other shelters used by unhoused people — a situation advocates say is a tragic consequence of the country’s homelessness crisis.
As the number of homeless people continues to rise — and the frigid weather sets in — it’s inevitable there will be more accidental fires, Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said in an interview Wednesday.
“If all you can get your hands on is a propane tank or a camp stove, you’ll use that to survive because the alternative is freezing to death,” said Richter, whose group estimates there are between 260,000 and 300,000 unhoused people across the country.
“This is only the beginning of winter and I absolutely guarantee we will be reporting on fires, amputations and more deaths,” he said.
On Dec. 11, three people were found dead in a shed that burnt down outside a Calgary home improvement store. A fire department official said there was evidence they had been using the shed as a shelter.
In Edmonton this year, there were two fire-related deaths at homeless encampments, and four in 2022. The fire department in Saskatoon recorded more than 30 fires in tents or homeless encampments this year, a jump from 12 fires in 2022 and three in 2021.
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Halifax’s fire department has responded to more than seven fires involving unhoused people since September, including two recent tent fires; occupants of both escaped without injury. Deputy fire chief David Meldrum said the occupant of one tent that caught fire said they had been running a small propane heater inside and had fallen asleep. Firefighters, he added, found a propane cylinder in the other tent that burned and a butane stove and small heater nearby.
Homelessness has increased across Canada in recent years. A study of 11 Canadian communities conducted by Richter’s group found that chronic homelessness had increased 40 per cent between February 2020 and October 2023.
In the Halifax area, the unhoused population was 1,068 as of last week; in February 2020, it was about 300 people, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia. In Montreal, there were 4,690 “visible” homelessness people in October 2022, a rise of 33 per cent since April 2018.
Canada’s federal housing advocate, Marie-Josée Houle, says people facing homelessness are stuck making impossible decisions to cope with sleeping outdoors.
“The reality is people need heat, the winter is so brutally harsh … in the end, housing is the answer,” she said in a recent interview.
Houle’s interim report said encampments have become more numerous and more densely populated since the pandemic began in 2020. Encampments have been subject to “a range of enforcement measures, including ticketing, eviction and trespass notices, and removal or destruction of belongings, by municipal officials.”
Her report notes that unhoused people are relying on propane and fire for warmth and cooking, and that tents and other makeshift shelters catch fire easily, allowing flames to spread quickly through encampments, destroying shelters and belongings.
“And these are their items for survival … and they’re the things that make people feel more human: photos, religious symbols, or even ashes of their loved ones,” Houle said.
Alexandra Flynn, a University of British Columbia law professor who specializes in housing and homelessness, said encampment fires occur most often in winter, and in the coldest cities, but she said fires remain a risk year-round.
“Some local governments or fire departments will say the answer to this is to clear encampments because of the risk of fire. But in the work I’ve been a part of, that has not been found to be a solution,” Flynn said.
Research shows that it’s safer to offer fire-safety support, extinguishers, and access to shelters or warming centres than it is to dismantle an encampment, she said.
Houle agrees: “The reality is … the forcible removal of encampments will not prevent fires.”
“In fact it’ll just make people more at risk and move them away from any of the resources they do have.”
Adding to cities’ affordable housing stock should be the focus, but all levels of government can take actions to improve the safety of homeless people, Houle said.
One example of the actions government can take is in Saskatoon, she said, where the fire department are providing support to the city encampments instead of dismantling them. “The Saskatoon fire department has refused to be weaponized against people in encampments,” Houle said.
Yvonne Raymer, assistant chief of the Saskatoon fire department, said there are two full-time positions dedicated to providing fire safety checks and other support at encampments.
“We do what we can to build trust and relationships with these individuals,” Raymer said. “Not everyone trusts somebody in a uniform, especially if they’re saying ‘this isn’t safe’ or ‘this isn’t adequate,’” she said.
Raymer said the job involves talking to people experiencing homelessness and connecting them with services such as warming centres, shelters or medical care. The department has recorded 860 “interactions” with encampment residents so far this year.
“Saskatoon is a small city with big city issues, so it keeps us flat-out busy,” she said.
And while Richter applauds the approach taken by Saskatoon’s fire department, he says the only solution to homelessness is “getting people out of encampments” and into housing that suits their needs.
“The fires won’t stop until the encampments stop,” he said.
Governments, he added, need to treat homelessness as if it were caused by a natural disaster, by doing things including renting out hotels for the unhoused or erecting modular housing units for them.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2023.
A previous version of this story said federal housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle’s interim report was produced with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. While the advocate is housed at and supported by the commission, her work is independent from the commission.