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Homeless claim doubted - Residents question cause of Brighton fires

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The Fire Department blames homeless squatters for the blazes that destroyed several bungalows in Brighton Beach.

Two fire marshals discussed the fires at a meeting of Community Board 13’s Public Safety Committee and explained that in some of the cases, squatters created small fires to keep warm but the flames inadvertently became uncontrollable.

According to Fire Department spokesperson Jim Long, eight people have been arrested in connection with some – not all – of the fires.

Although the FDNY says several fires were accidental – squatters “started the fires to cook, to keep warm, to provide light” but the flames “became bigger than intended,” Long said – at least one fire was intentional.

Long explained that in one instance, two homeless individuals wanted to stake claim to the same vacant bungalow. After one kicked the other out of the home, the spurned squatter returned and set the bungalow ablaze.

Long could not provide details about which bungalow was destroyed by arson and which homes were struck by accidental fires.

Some fires have yet to be solved and are still under investigation, Long said.

According to a record of the committee meeting, the marshals reported that developers and property owners haven’t filed insurance claims – seemingly in response to previous accusations that developers intentionally set the buildings ablaze.

In January, City Councilman Mike Nelson said, “It certainly appears that it’s an arson/insurance situation.”

He’s now changing his tune.

“At the time that he made that quote, that’s what the consensus was,” explained Debbie Weiss, Nelson’s director of constituent services. “However, he has full faith in the fire marshals and their investigation and if they believe at this time that this was the work of squatters and homeless persons then that’s what he believes. The ones that are not solved, he’s leaving it up to the expertise of the fire marshals.”

“These fires are not connected,” Long said.

However, some Brighton Beach residents say it’s easy to blame the fires on the homeless.

“I was at a number of those incidents and I was told by the fire people on the scene that they were suspicious fires,” said Brighton 3rd Street resident Judd Fischler. “Then all of a sudden they’re claiming homeless.”

“You’re going to tell me that 12 buildings were burned down in a short time by homeless? This is strange to me,” he continued.

“They haven’t shown me that there are people in there,” Fischler added. “There’s no evidence they had any food in there, there’s no evidence they had any clothing, there’s no evidence there was anyone living in there. Something is wrong here and I don’t like it at all.”

Regardless of who or what caused the fires, Brighton Beach residents say they offer proof that the neighborhood must be downzoned to curb overdevelopment.

“I’m glad to hear that the developers are not responsible for these fires but that still does not address the issue of what is going on in Brighton Beach with all this development that is out of place,” said community activist Ida Sanoff.

Sanoff said Brighton Beach’s new multistory condominiums could be the reason there are homeless squatters in the neighborhood.

“One has to wonder why these people are homeless,” she said. “Are they homeless because they can’t afford any of the housing in the area? There’s been a number of single-room-occupancy dwellings in Brighton Beach that have disappeared over the years so where are these people supposed to go? There’s no affordable housing. There’s no housing available for low-income people.”

The Department of City Planning just completed its long-awaited rezoning plan for Brighton Beach and is expected to present the plan at this month’s Community Board 13 general meeting on May 28. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Coney Island Hospital, 2601 Ocean Parkway, in the second-floor auditorium.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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