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A California House Fire Reveals the Complicated Politics of Homelessness
A year ago, my friends lost their home and nearly their lives to a blaze likely started by homeless people.
ONE YEAR AGO, on the night of October 2, 2022, Irma Hawkins was drifting off to sleep in her second-floor bedroom in Venice, California, when she heard a roar of noise. Was it a plane, or maybe the Santa Ana wind?
Her husband, Martin Kasindorf, got up and looked out their bedroom window. In the corner he saw an orange glow next door, a few feet from his home. Maybe a party going on, he thought, half-asleep, then—wait a minute, it’s a construction site and nobody lives there. He walked into the next room to a large picture window facing the adjacent lot. The whole structure was ablaze.
The glass window suddenly “blew out right at my feet,” he told me. “I thought, the fire will be here in a minute. We’ve got to get out.” He was in a t-shirt and undershorts, his wife in her nightgown. They grabbed their cell phones, Irma grabbed her poodle by his collar, and they fled for their lives.
There was no time to look for Emily, Marty’s cat. But they left the door open and hoped she would find her way out.
From the safety of the alley behind 419 Carroll Canal, they watched as the terrifying flames engulfed their home of over twenty years; as the 3,528-square-foot house under construction next door was reduced to charred steel girders; as the fire, classified as a “major emergency,” tore through a third house, and rose to temperatures that melted windows and siding in other homes.
Marty—a former lawyer and retired journalist who had been White House correspondent for Newsday, and with whom, I should note here, I had covered political campaigns at USA Today—was 82 at the time of the fire. Irma, an artistic former clinical psychologist who had created a sculpture garden in the adjacent empty lot that an absentee owner had let them use for twenty-one years, until construction started, was 71. “It was the last thing we needed at our ages,” Marty said. “At least we were in shape to scramble out of there.”
Sympathetic neighbors handed the couple a random selection of clothing. That’s how Marty ended up at a nearby hotel wearing women’s shorts held up by a rope, his own Nantucket t-shirt, and somebody’s bedroom slippers. And they didn’t have wallets. The young hotel clerk refused to accept a voucher from the Los Angeles Fire Department; she’d never seen one before. Finally, at about 3 a.m., after their credit card company assured the clerk that their credit was good, Marty and Irma went to sleep.
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Four hours later, they walked the half-mile back to their burned-out home. Neighbors told them as they approached that “Emily is here, Emily is okay,” Marty recalled. “And then we saw her padding toward us. It was a lovely moment.” Near tears, he paused to collect himself. “I don’t know what I would have done if Emily had died. It would have been devastating.”
Ground Zero for a National Crisis
MORE THAN 100 FIREFIGHTERS were dispatched to battle the Venice Canals fire, according to a short statement from the Los Angeles Fire Department, extinguishing the raging conflagration in an hour and twenty minutes. On the first anniversary of the blaze, there is still no official word on what caused it: The LAFD told me an arson report is not yet finished. But Marty, Irma, and their neighbors have little doubt about what happened that night in “the picturesque, upscale but homeless-plagued Venice Canals,” as Marty described their neighborhood. The couple summed it up bluntly in the title of an eleven-minute video they made about the catastrophe: “Homeless People Burned Our House Down.”
America is experiencing a record surge in homelessness this year, the Wall Street Journal reported in August, naming factors such as high housing costs, a shortage of affordable rentals, the continuing opioid crisis, and the end of eviction pauses and other pandemic aid. The reporters put the tally so far this year at over 577,000 homeless people, based on counts from 300 sources that accounted for eight out of nine homeless last year.
Cities all over the country are dotted with tent camps, RV clusters, and the disruption and crime that come with them. Yet the sheer scale of the problem in California, and the array of attempts to solve it, are drawing attention both wanted and unwanted. “Everyone who cares about homelessness is looking at L.A.,” read a recent headline in the Los Angeles Times. As writer Noah Bierman notes in the article, California is not the only state with warm weather, poverty, drug addiction, and crime, but its share of homeless people is dramatically disproportionate.
A June count of Los Angeles County put the total nightly homeless population at over 75,000. The state has 12 percent of the total U.S. population but almost a third of the country’s homeless people. A landmark study released in June, however, contradicts the myth that homeless people are flooding into California. Most of them were already there, the University of California-San Francisco researchers found: “90% of participants lost their last housing in California and 75% of participants live in the same county as where they were last housed.”
Not surprisingly, two thirds of the homeless people in the study said they had been regular users of illicit drugs at some point in their lives and 82 percent said they had “experienced a serious mental health issue.” The most unexpected and perhaps saddest finding, in terms of what might have been, is how little money it would have taken to keep many people from becoming homeless. “Seventy percent said that with $300 to $500 more per month, they could have kept their housing,” the study said.
Now homelessness in California is at a crisis stage and has become a national example of what not to do and, perhaps, eventually, what to do. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis weaponized San Francisco’s homeless in his political war with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, blaming its “collapse” on “leftist policies” in a graphic ad about seeing people using heroin, smoking crack, and defecating in the street. Newsom told Sean Hannity this year that the problem antedates his time in office, but “that said, we own this, Sean. I’m not here defending this.” He called the volume of homeless in his state “disgraceful” and is targeting mental health, drug use, and homelessness in what Politico calls his “legacy project.” Look for much more on this on Nov. 30 when Hannity is scheduled to moderate a “red-state vs. blue-state” debate between Newsom and DeSantis.
A “Major Emergency” That Was Inevitable
MARTY AND IRMA moved into their Venice Beach house in December 1998 and started noticing homeless people in the area around 2010—“digging through garbage for what they could sell, probably for drugs,” Marty says. “This went on for years. The problems started years before the fire.” The construction site, with its warm, private, unlocked porta-potty, was a magnet for homeless people. “The porta-potty was a very attractive nuisance. They could gain access to that and the whole site by moving part of a cyclone fence,” Marty told me.
Last week, he and Irma filed a civil lawsuit against the owner of the property and his general contractor, alleging that they had “failed to properly secure the site, failed to properly secure the toilet on site, failed to clean up flammable debris where the fire was ignited, and did not adhere to California Residential, Building and/or Fire Code sections. Their actions and inactions resulted in Plaintiffs losing their home and everything in it.”
The night of the fire, alerted by his dog, retired business consultant Glenn Searle went to the window in his home across the alley from the construction site and saw a small circular fire the size of a campfire inside the open garage of the unfinished house. He thinks he was the first to see the fire and he called 911 immediately. It was around 10:20 p.m., he told me, not 10:44 p.m. as the LAFD said that night in an alert (revised wording the next day said the department responded at 10:44 p.m.). He was put on hold and as he watched and waited, the flames ignited three sides of the structure’s wooden garage. Many people were in bed at that time and some were sound asleep. Searle started screaming “fire” out his window and other neighbors shouted the same on the alley and outside the house on the other side of the construction site. By the time the first fire trucks arrived, Searle said at the time, “it looked like an inferno.”
Searle, Marty, and Irma were informed that the local fire company—Station 63, less than a mile away—was engaged with a fire at a homeless encampment and could not leave until it was out. The companies that arrived first were from miles away. “They were strangers,” Searle told me, unfamiliar with the complex canal system, where hydrants were located (on nearby Venice Boulevard, not the alley serving Carroll Canal houses), and where to run their hoses.
Searle estimated it was more than forty minutes from the time he called 911 to when water was hitting flames and says “the first thing they used water on was my house” because it was about to go. Marty and Irma’s house next to the construction site was “too far gone by the time they got there,” Searle said. As Irma said at the time, she was sure firefighters would arrive quickly and their house would be saved. But they didn’t. And it wasn’t.
The fire was so big and so hot that it melted the siding on a house across the canal, Searle said, and damaged two houses across the alley, one of them Searle’s. His outer windows were melted and “my garbage cans melted to a one-inch puddle of plastic.” Damage to his home came to about $100,000, he told me. That’s on top of the destruction of two multimillion-dollar homes (Marty’s and the incomplete structure next door), serious damage to the home on the other side of the building site (unoccupied since the fire, repairs began recently); and blown-out windows in an apartment building.
“There really aren’t words to describe how scary that fire was, the damage it did, the threat to life that it posed,” L.A. City Council member Traci Park, a Venice resident, said in an interview. “It was a miracle that no one died.”
Political Tinder Waiting to Ignite
VENICE, WHICH IS PART of the city of Los Angeles, has an edgy, beachy vibe. Its residents—many of them rich, famous, or both—lean liberal. And for years it has struggled with an increasingly large-scale, intrusive, and unmanageable homelessness crisis. The Hollywood Reporter chronicled the dilemma in a January 2019 article called “Homeless Surge Puts Hollywood’s Progressive Ideals to the Test.” In one vivid example, the article quoted a radiologist who had arrived home with her two children and found a woman shooting up in her yard.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Tent encampments spread, even where laws said they couldn’t, as authorities decided—understandably—not to move people inside to shelters or other crowded settings amid the dangerous viral outbreak. And there were even more homeless people as the pandemic economy cratered. “It really did get out of hand,” Searle said. “There was garbage everywhere when you walked your dog. It not only hurts your heart, it’s filthy and ugly and it makes you depressed.”
The day after the blaze, Devon Daley, a neighbor, called the situation a “ticking time bomb” waiting to explode. “We hear noises all the time, yelling and screaming,” she told the Santa Monica Daily Press. “I can listen to it from my bedroom. People are rattling through the trash cans.” Searle said the alley has been frequently used by addicts to smoke drugs such as meth and crack in broad daylight, and needles and glass pipes often litter the alley. He told me his mailbox had been crowbarred and his mail stolen many times. His garage was broken into and his tools stolen more than once as well, he said.
Several Carroll Canal residents told local media that they’d seen and heard homeless people at the house under construction in the days preceding the fire. Marty told me they had been there “for some time. I’d hear them tromping downstairs at 6 a.m., leaving for the day after squatting for the night.” Right after the fire, Irma delivered her verdict on the canals: “It’s a renegade place. If you’re homeless, you can come here and camp on the street, and there’s no recourse. You can do whatever you want. You can skateboard, and break into houses. It’s lawless.”
The vandalism, encampments, and RV clusters had divided the town between “people wanting civic society, order, and a pretty city, and people who felt that the homeless had no other choices and should be tolerated,” as Searle put it. That divide played out in key local, state, and federal elections a few weeks after the raging fire on Carroll Canal.
Many were unhappy with Mike Bonin, the L.A. City Council member representing Venice. He was pushing for Venice Dell, a 140-unit affordable housing project in the city. The proposal drew neighborhood objections (Irma called it “the Monster”) and Bonin fought back. “He called us ‘NIMBYs,’” Searle said, using the acronym for Not In My Backyard. “Being called a NIMBY because you’re fighting chaos is not pleasant. We’re all humanitarians, too. We wanted people housed and mental illness treated.”
A recall effort against Bonin failed to garner enough signatures to go to a vote in January 2022, but days later he announced he would not run for re-election. Two Democrats won a top-two nonpartisan primary to succeed him: progressive Erin Darling, a criminal law and civil rights lawyer, and Park, a municipal law attorney who prioritized homeless issues. Park showed up the day after the fire and offered Marty and Irma a room at her own house a mile away. She already had their support, and they already had plans to stay a few nights with friends, but her gesture cemented their votes.
The mayoral race was also underway, offering a stark choice between developer Rick Caruso, a billionaire real-estate developer who pledged to quickly build 30,000 new interim beds for homeless people, and Karen Bass, a former nurse, physician assistant, community organizer, state House speaker, and longtime member of Congress, who promised to place over 17,000 homeless people indoors in her first year at a much lower cost—$292 million to Caruso’s estimate of at least $743 million, which did not include operating costs—and specified a variety of new and existing options to do so.
Irma had long planned to vote for Caruso, and Marty, a self-described “moderate centrist Democrat,” switched from Bass to Caruso after the fire. He says he was “not that liberal to begin with” on homeless issues, and he was hardnosed about the homeless people disrupting Venice. They were not “winsome families of little children and their mothers,” he told me; in fact in the couple’s video about the fire, he characterized them as a “mentally ill, drugged-out army of desperados” blocking the streets.
Bass and Park both won their 2022 races, and Marty considers Bass a pleasant surprise. “She’s gotten religion and she’s been good on the homeless. She realizes people are fed up,” he said. Searle says Bass and Park have “a good partnership. They are leading with their humanitarianism but also removing the chaos.”
Park, in our talk, cited “a significant reduction in the number of sidewalk encampments” in Venice and 200 people housed. Crime has fallen and people say they feel safer. Park is also working for restrictions on homeless RV encampments and more targeted distribution of homeless funds. She praises Bass for her work so far and for leveraging her experience and contacts at all levels of government.
One visible result: Bass recently won a major change from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, headed by her former House of Representatives colleague Marcia Fudge, which will now let homeless people move into approved permanent housing and then start assembling the documents they need to qualify, instead of the reverse. That makes hundreds of vacant units immediately available.
The city, backed by the Los Angeles Times editorial board, is still trying to build the Venice Dell project Bonin had advocated. Park and Bass have been accused of trying to slow it down—but some residents agree it should be held up, claiming that the development is overly large, it is in a flood zone and tsunami escape route, and would take up land so close to the beach that it is too valuable for that particular use as opposed to other locations.
Park says the larger issue is the failure of government leaders to make tough calls, mobilize available resources, and “get people into a better place before the problem went off the rails” during the pandemic. “It’s almost unimaginable that we could let it get this bad,” she said. “The warning signs were always there.”
Starting from Scratch as Human Beings
THE CITY HAD RED-TAGGED the Kasindorf-Hawkins house as uninhabitable after the fire, but that didn’t stop looters from getting in before they could board it up. They stole costume jewelry and “my father’s vintage Underwood typewriter,” Marty said. A giant safe dangling from the ceiling in a third-floor loft area was out of reach. It contained $1,000 in an envelope. “Irma’s mother always had done that. So she did that. So the looters missed their big chance there,” he said.
Since the looters had violated the city’s red-tagging, the pair decided they would climb in too, and see what they could salvage. They were able to rescue some personal records, tax records, books, Marty’s passport and daily diary book, and a few modest pieces of furniture.
“We just had to start from scratch as human beings,” he said, and laughed. “Somebody bought us an Uber ride to the DMV. We managed to get driver’s licenses. That helped get us our credit cards back. We looked like ragamuffins. Street people.” He was still wearing “loosely tied women’s shorts” and his t-shirt smoky from the fire.
They needed clothes, a place to live, household items, transportation, time to process their experience. They lost two cars in the fire, one with a CATWSHP license plate (Marty’s) and the other, Irma’s, with a DOGWSHP tag. They stayed in a couple of rental properties in the Venice area until July 2023, when they left to spend the summer in a house they own in Vermont. The replacement cars and clothing they’d bought were stored at three sites scattered around Los Angeles.
“A social problem bit us in the butt,” Marty said at one point in a resigned summation of their misfortune. Yet the scale and depth of their loss hit me every time I tried to imagine recreating my home and life and past from thin air. Marty coped in part with frequent public Facebook postings on everything but the fire, from Donald Trump’s legal woes and L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s decision to relocate (“New York, you will love The Dude”) to jokes that ran the gamut from awful to pretty good (“a new definition of Chinese takeout,” he wrote the day the Air Force shot down a Chinese spy balloon off South Carolina).
“I just try to be funny no matter what,” Marty said.
“Marty is upbeat in a disconnected way,” Irma said wryly, in a situation that warrants “real sorrow, real emotion.” As for herself, “I was a basket case. I couldn’t have any of my own thoughts. It was survival.” She found refuge in artistic creativity: “I took video classes where I had a teacher tell us what to do and how to do it. I was very open to having somebody direct me and provide structure. That’s what I didn’t have, because I was so upset.”
Marty did share news of the fire shortly after it happened in a notably dispassionate Facebook post. “I thought I would tell everyone that our house burned down Sunday night, Oct. 2, with all our possessions. . . . We are slowly clawing our way back. Insurance is helping to rent cars and provide temporary housing. Worst experience ever.”
Every so often there were reminders of what they’d lost. Sometimes it was as mundane as a request for help with an unfamiliar satellite TV system in a new temporary rental. Sometimes it was a deeper reflection on what they’d survived, like Marty’s December 2022 birthday post: “My wife Irma and I have our lives, Emily the kitty, Bodhi the standard poodle and lots of new Stuff, from cars to clothes. Most cherished of all, we have our friends.”
There’s a touching photo that same month of Marty grinning next to a woman a half-century his junior. Jillian Beck was the editor-in-chief, in 2013–14, of UCLA’s Daily Bruin—as Marty had been in 1959–60. In 2021, Marty received the student paper’s Alum of the Year Award. When the Bruin’s alumni network heard about the fire, Beck hand-delivered a replica of the destroyed original.
One’s past gets recovered like this, millimeter by millimeter, if at all. That finally sank in for me late last month when I sent Marty a 2004 photo of John Kerry and the two of us—the team covering the Kerry presidential campaign for USA Today—accompanied by a jokey message. “Just to get you in the mood . . . not that any of us look like this anymore,” I wrote hours before our scheduled Zoom interview. Though it should not have, his response to this small gesture shocked me: “I had this picture framed in the home-office that burned up in our big fire. Now I can reprint it and reframe it and put it up again.”
“Two More or Less Happy New Santa Barbarans”
RIGHT AFTER THE FIRE, a local reporter asked Irma how she felt about losing her home of twenty-four years. “I thought, I get to move, because this place sucks,” she replied at the time. In reality, it’s more complicated. “I would stay if I could find a good house,” Irma told me. “I always liked the canals. I was just sick of Carroll Canal.”
Carroll Canal is “the closest one to past and perhaps future homeless tent encampments on Venice Boulevard,” Marty explained. Irma called it “crazy-making”: on one side, droves of foreign tourists walking the canal-side path promoted in international guidebooks the world over. On the other side, “people going through our garbage.” In 2018, they thought about moving further away from Venice Boulevard. They bid on a house on Grand Canal, but ultimately decided they liked their own house better and withdrew the offer.
Marty and Irma didn’t want to rebuild after the fire, but they couldn’t sell a lot with a gutted structure on it. For five months, they tried to get a permit from the L.A. Department of Building and Safety to tear down their red-tagged, uninhabitable house, while at the same time the same agency was sending them warnings that they’d be fined if they didn’t tear down their red-tagged, uninhabitable house immediately. “Overregulation, that’s California,” Marty says with a shrug.
A demolition expert friend managed to untangle the red tape for them, and their house, witness to much happiness and many pets over the years, was finally razed. Marty and Irma documented it in a two-minute video, “The Fall of the House of Kasindorf and Hawkins,” set to “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The song sounds particularly melancholy in this context, especially at the end as two ducks swim away companionably from the leveled house.
Marty and Irma sold their lot in mid-August. It won’t remain empty for long: Artist Robin Murez, a friend of theirs from across the canal, told me the new owner of 419 Carroll Canal has donated the lot to host her Venice Flying Carousel Sculpture Garden for one year or more, “until he gets permits to build or the Carousel gets permits to be installed in our public park.”
There is a new House of Kasindorf and Hawkins now, nearly a hundred miles away in Santa Barbara, a city of less than 90,000. There are homeless people, of course, but most of them are near the beach and the new house is not. Irma and a new neighbor were walking their dogs the other day when the neighbor said she was worried about a nearby empty lot she feared might attract homeless people. “I was horrified,” Irma said. But so far she has not seen homeless people or encampments in the neighborhood. Their new home also has space for an art studio, unlike the house that burned down.
It’s a bittersweet tradeoff. Marty says their first choice would have been to move somewhere else in the canals, but nothing in their price range was available. Their second choice, nearby Santa Monica, was even more expensive. “Santa Barbara was the fallback, and a beautiful, peaceful one,” he says.
A selfie of the pair shows them smiling against a backdrop of blue sky and new house. Marty’s caption: “Two more or less happy new Santa Barbarans.”