AVONDALE — Three homeless encampments were set on fire within three hours Monday in Avondale, causing no injuries but destroying people’s belongings.
Neighbors are trying to help by donating tents, bedding and other supplies.
“It breaks my heart that this happened, even if it was an accident. These are our neighbors just trying to survive in the harshest conditions,” said Amy Lempa, who lives near the homeless encampment at Belmont and Kedzie avenues.
The fires happened Monday morning and afternoon, said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). Two of the fires occurred in Ramirez-Rosa’s ward.
Just before 10 a.m., someone set fire to the homeless encampment at Belmont and Kedzie avenues. About 20 minutes later, another fire ripped through the encampment at Belmont and Kimball avenues. Then about 12:30 p.m., the encampment at Diversey and California avenues was set ablaze.
Ramirez-Rosa said police are investigating the fires as possible arson, though police would not confirm that.
Police officials only confirmed one of the fires occurred — the one at Diversey and California avenues — and said it is not being investigated as possible arson. Police classified that fire as “non-criminal damage to personal property.”
Fire Department spokesman Larry Merritt said fire officials were called to the scenes of the fires, but the investigation is being handled by police.
Antonio Ortega, a resident of the homeless encampment at Diversey and California avenues, lost all of his belongings in the fire. Ortega said he was down the street panhandling when the blaze erupted. He returned to find all of his belongings torched.
“Everything’s burned. Everything’s burned,” Ortega said Wednesday afternoon, standing in front of his blackened mattress.
Someone set all five of the tents at Ortega’s encampment on fire. Two have already been replaced by neighbors.
Ortega, who has lived at the encampment for five years, said he thinks the fires were started by a person who was kicked out of the encampment and wanted revenge.
Ortega said he’s been panhandling so he can stay at a hotel for a few nights because he doesn’t want to sleep in his burned tent.
After news of the fires spread on social media, neighbors sprung into action. Heather, a neighbor who declined to provide her last name, has collected donated tents. Other neighbors have dropped off food and other supplies.
“In the five years that I have lived in Avondale and in Chicago I have never been as heart-warmed and as charmed by this city,” Heather said.
Ramirez-Rosa and his staffers dropped off three fire extinguishers at one of the encampments Wednesday.
“Living on the streets is extremely difficult. To think there’s someone targeting these individuals and making their lives harder than it already is is really disheartening and angering. I hope that we don’t see more of this,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
Longtime Avondale resident Esteban Burgoa has lended support to the people who live in the neighborhood encampments for decades.
Burgoa said he recently helped set up a water system at one of the sites so residents can take showers. He drops off presents at Christmas and brings a turkey around Thanksgiving. He sometimes drops off cash.
Buroga said he was “very upset” to see that someone had set fire to the encampments.
“These are the most vulnerable people in our society and they’re destroying what little they have,” Burgoa said. “Whoever this person is, it’s a dangerous person. … They could kill somebody.”
Burgoa said he experienced homelessness about a decade ago after serving in the Iraq War so he can relate to the struggles of people living in the encampments.
“I’ve been through this. It’s nothing that happens out of the blue. It’s based on life experiences,” he said.
Burgoa said he was heartened by other neighbors who understand that and want to help.
“The community cares about them. People really care. There’s good people out there,” he said.
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