SAN ANTONIO — What had been an iconic northeast-side dance hall for decades is a pile of smoking rubble now, after a three-alarm fire raced through Midnight Rodeo building about 4 a.m. Wednesday.
San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said he believes the cause of the fire might be related to homeless people who had taken refuge in the cavernous 25,000-square-foot building.
“At this time we’re calling it suspicious because of homelessness,” Hood said.
Longtime neighbors of the building, which had been vacant for years, said the massive structure, which was set back from both Nacogdoches and Thousand Oaks roads, offered a sheltered hiding place for homeless people.
“When they hit bankruptcy, the grass had not been cut in months," said one residents who called herself Vanessa. "There was trash everywhere. There was an outside area, so the homeless would camp out there.
"Recently you could see that they were going in and out of it," she added. “My mom started buying surveillance cameras and extra security, just because she felt unsafe at night with them walking around trying to get into houses.”
City officials said the building was in such a state of disrepair that they had taken steps in recent weeks to force the owner to bring it into compliance with city codes.
City Council District 10 representative Clayton Perry said he recently toured the site with the city’s DART, or Dangerous Assessment Response Team.
“Midnight Rodeo has been an iconic part of the neighborhood for years,” Perry said, adding that during the tour he found it had become much like a hotel for the homeless, full of trash and showing evidence of possible drug-manufacturing.
Perry said the current problem is a perfect example of how difficult it is for the city to help people experiencing homelessness
“As a city we are doing everything possible to help, but you can’t make people accept the help,” he said.
'Engagement is what we're trying to do'
Explaining how the process works to abate an area populated by people who are unsheltered, Patrick Steck, the assistant director of the city’s department of human services, said San Antonio's response depends on the particulars of any situation.
“When it is in a drainage channel, park or on the side of the road, we'll do an assessment. If there is a severe health and safety issue, a threat to the public or the people who are staying there, then we schedule that for a site abatement,” Steck said.
He added they also have options for private property.
“Under the code, it is the property owner's responsibility," Steck said. "But we do coordinate with code enforcement and we also will lead with outreach and engagement, even on private property, especially if the owner is giving their consent."
Steck said they never move to abate any situation without providing plenty of outreach to the unsheltered community.
“We engage with them when we do the assessment. We engage with them when we're there. And then we work with crews to clear out any trash that has accumulated at that site,” Steck said, adding the goal is always to move people toward safety. “Engagement is what we're doing to try and connect folks into shelters and to housing programs, so they get off the streets long-term, and have a place to reside that's not unsafe to themselves and to others too."
Steck said one short answer for anyone who may be uneasy with an encampment nearby is to call for help.
“Homelessness is not a crime in and of itself, but if there is criminal activity, call police. Call 911. If you see an encampment where people might need assistance, call 311 and that will get to us,” Steck said.
Steck said that, over time, the best solution will be the development of more options for permanent, supportive housing.
“Long term, we need affordable housing options for people. Affordable housing was a key component of the bond and that is well underway, especially for people who have been experiencing homelessness for a long time, so permanent supportive housing is important” Steck said. “Community support is sometimes a challenge but we need more units, to get folks into a safe house where they can stay and not be on the streets.”
With regard to the Midnight Rodeo outlook, Hood said work crews will remain on site while demolition work continues. Oftentimes with large, intense fires, investigators are unable to establish a definite cause due to extensive damage.