Archive for Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Shouts and murmurs: A storage unit is no place to live

January 26, 2005

It's a little too close to home.

Despite its larger population, I think of Leavenworth as a community somewhat removed from the problems big cities face.

But after hearing last week that a homeless Leavenworth man accidentally started a fire in a storage unit in which he had been living, I began to wonder: Are we really so far from the city after all?

According to Mark DeMaranville, assistant chief and fire marshal for the city of Leavenworth, the homeless man was middle-aged, and a veteran.

Apparently, he moved into his two storage units -- each about 4-foot square and 8 feet tall -- at Broadway Storage, located at 748 Cherokee, about a week before the fire.

He was using a propane-fueled, two-burner camping cookstove to stay warm, DeMaranville said.

"He was sorting through some clothing and the clothing came in contact with the open flame and started the fire," DeMaranville said.

Of the 16 units, eight were damaged by fire, and all were damaged by smoke and water. An early rough estimate calculated about $40,000 in damage to the structure, and at least that much on loss of contents, DeMaranville said.

Apparently, the man had lived in Leavenworth for about six months.

"He was in and out of different apartments and a motel room," DeMaranville said. "When his money ran out, he moved into the storage area that he had rented prior to this, and that he had personal belongings stored in."

Just days after he took up residence in the storage units, temperatures plunged to near-zero. A thick layer of ice and snow blanketed the outside of the building.

"It was cold," DeMaranville said. "A doghouse might have been warmer than this storage unit. It had insulation, but it's a metal building."

And, openings at the top -- between the units' ceilings and the roof, to allow for air movement, would have chilled the units even more.

After the fire, the man was taken to the Veteran's Administration Center in Leavenworth, and later transported to a mission in Kansas City. And, according to DeMaranville, the homeless man felt sad that he'd inadvertently caused so much trouble, and damage.

"He was still shook up three days later when I went to see him again," DeMaranville said.

DeMaranville said he understood the man's plight.

"I know if I was in that situation, I would have a hard time asking for help," DeMaranville said. "Whether it's human nature or pride or whatever."

DeMaranville, who's been on the fire department for 10 years and has been an investigator since last May, said this type of desperation -- to resort to living in a structure not intended for habitation -- is uncommon in Leavenworth.

"You see it on the news all the time in the bigger cities," DeMaranville said. "But when you see it in your own town, it actually hits home."

We've long known about homelessness in Kansas City, as well as in Lawrence, where there are services in place to try to help these people.

Although I realize Leavenworth County is not immune to all types of social problems, for some reason I had the feeling that everyone in this area could go to bed at night with a roof over their heads, in a heated building.

Now I know better.

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