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Politics & Policy

Are homeless encampment and street fires legal in San Francisco?

A man sprinkles salt as he cooks food outdoors on a small grill along a sidewalk next to a street under a freeway overpass.
An unhoused man who used to be a professional chef before falling into addiction cooks a meal underneath the Central Freeway underpass on Division Street in San Francisco. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

San Francisco’s homeless population is often spotted using open flames to warm up or cook meals. Sometimes, those fires can spiral out of control, damaging properties or endangering lives.

Image of speech bubble with "Ask The Standard" inside.

One Standard reader wanted to know why, when they’ve contacted the city’s 311 phone line about encampment fires, they’re asked whether the flame is being used to cook food.

“When I call 311 and report encampment fires, the city asks if people are using the open flames to cook,” the reader said. “Why? Isn’t it illegal?”

The first answer we got from the San Francisco Fire Department was complicated.

Justin Schorr, a public information officer for the department, said a barbecue or fire pit that’s being properly monitored may be deemed to be safe. Firefighters are trained to provide fire safety education as it pertains to smoking and cooking, Schorr said.

SFPD responds to the fire underneath the Central Freeway on December 19, 2023.
Firefighters respond a fire underneath the Central Freeway on Dec. 19, 2023. The area is known for homeless encampments. | Source: Josh Koehn/The Standard

In trying to answer the reader’s question, the fire department said that 311 is the incorrect place to report an open flame. Instead, the department said, concerned citizens should call 911.

But to complicate things further, the San Francisco Police Department wouldn’t comment on the legality of fires in the street.

The Department of Emergency Management deferred to the police. The fire department didn’t initially clarify if they were legal, and the City Attorney’s Office deferred to the fire department—in short, no one in city government seemed to know or was willing to answer.

In fact, at the time The Standard pressed the city for a straight answer, their email system had briefly collapsed, according to an emergency department staffer and a Public Works staffer. However, the mayor’s spokesperson said it was a glitch and didn't affect the entire system.

‘It Is Illegal’

In a subsequent phone call, fire department spokesperson Mariano Elias initially told The Standard that it’s “kind of a gray area” and that fires aren’t allowed near cars, trees or wooden buildings. 

But later, after he recalled instances of homeless people cooking or using fires to warm themselves, he said, “You shall not have any warming or cooking fires.” 

“The fire department will extinguish it,” Elias finally said. “It is illegal.”

A man cooks food outdoors on a small grill using a gas torch along a sidewalk next to a street under a freeway overpass.
An unhoused man who said he used to be a professional chef before falling into addiction cooks a meal underneath the Central Freeway underpass on Division St. in San Francisco in June 2023. | Source: Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Roughly 4,000 people live on the city’s streets on any given night, while local homeless shelters generally sit at capacity and some are forced to turn away people in need.

In response to the colder winter weather, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said it’s performing more wellness checks, checking for hypothermia and handing out blankets and ponchos. The department said it has also expanded access to its shelters and is providing warming stations for cold weather respite.

“The winter months can be especially challenging for people experiencing homelessness,” the department said.

David Sjostedt can be reached at david@sfstandard.com