COLUMBIA - A tent fire at a homeless camp late Tuesday night leaves two people recovering from serious burns at University Hospital. Just before midnight, Columbia firefighters responded to the America's Best Value Inn Motel on Providence Road, where they found a man with serious burns in the lobby.
The motel's clerk on duty, Charlie Kious, said he did not make the initial call for help. David Shankle, a motel guest staying in a room near the lobby, said officers were at the motel for only five minutes before heading across the street to Vandiver Drive. That's where they found, at the back of the parking lot, a badly-burned woman in the back of a shed. Columbia Fire Captain John Metz said an ambulance arrived within five minutes to treat both burn victims. The shed is bordered by woods, where officers speculate there is a temporary homeless camp.
Investigators have not released the victims' names but the 40-year-old man and the 30-year-old woman are being treated at University Hospital. Metz said he is unclear of their relation to each other. However, he did say the two were "seriously burned." Lieutenant Debbie Sorrell of Columbia Fire has launched an investigation into the incident and was at the hospital Wednesday interviewing the victims.
Metz said for now, he cannot speculate on the cause of the tent fire. However, Shankle, who said he used to be homeless and live in an outdoor camp in Columbia, suggested the fire was most likely an accident. "Most [homeless] guys are street smart. They know you're not supposed to set a fire close to a tent, but it was pretty breezy last night. If you didn't keep warm, you would have froze to death last night," he said.
Shankle said despite Columbia's homeless shelters, many homeless individuals in the area continue to sleep outside, even in winter's most frigid temperatures. He said, "Shelters get full. Absolutely, it's a given. I know guys who have gone into treatment just to stay warm."
Major Kendall Mathews, Regional Coordinator for the Salvation Army of Mid-Missouri, said there is plenty of room at the local shelters. The Salvation Army Harbor House on Ann Street has 15 "cold cot" beds, in addition to the rooms provided for individuals and families who have opted to enter the shelter's work program. Mathews said when the 15 beds are full each night, the shelter refers people to the other shelters in Columbia or the Jefferson City Salvation Army shelter, to which transport is provided.
Mathews said the tent fire perhaps can be a turning point for battling homelessness in Mid-Missouri. "I think that this incident should pull our resources together from different other human service agencies here in Columbia and Mid-Missouri. Let's talk about this. Maybe we should have an open workshop or open forum here at the Salvation Army where we talk about what the issues are with the homeless people here in the community. Maybe we invite the homeless people [and ask] how can we help you? That's something we will pursue."
KOMU will provide updated information about the condition of the victims and the determined cause of the fire when it becomes available.