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Editorial: Fire fighter's death has everything to do with vacancies and homelessness

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Honoring fallen firefighter Benjamin Polson

Black bunting drapes Engine House 13 on Friday in honor of firefighter Benjamin Polson, who died while battling a fire in a vacant home along the 5900 block of Cote Brilliante Avenue on Thursday.

Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Thursday’s death of St. Louis firefighter Benjamin Polson should outrage every taxpayer and property owner in the city because it was preventable. First responders like Polson must put their lives on the line countless times a year because city officials continue to delay substantive action on some of the most pressing problems that directly contributed to Polson’s death: homelessness and vacant, derelict properties.

Polson died performing his job, making sure that no one was trapped inside a burning, abandoned house in the 5900 block of Cote Brilliante. The house was one of more than 10,000 vacant buildings around the city, according to statistics compiled by the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative. Among those buildings, thousands are either left open and vulnerable to invasion or are so badly secured that a person trying to enter could manage it with relative ease.

Therein are the ingredients for more tragedies like the one Polson suffered. The vacant house that caught fire Thursday had long been abandoned by its owners and taken over by the city. Utilities were disconnected, so there was little chance the fire was started by something like an electrical short. The most likely culprit was an invader — either a homeless person or a drug user — who had ignited a fire that got out of hand. In 2018, the Fire Department estimated that 40% of emergency fire calls involved vacant buildings.

Polson and others entered the Cote Brilliante house to ensure no one was trapped inside. The blaze grew more intense, and it quickly became apparent that the structure was unstable, so the firefighters decided to leave. That’s when the roof collapsed on top of Polson.

Ongoing neglect of derelict properties by city officials and private owners is creating more and more death traps for first responders. Of the city’s 10,421 abandoned buildings, the vast majority are privately owned, single-family residences. And by far the biggest owner of such derelict properties is developer Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration LLC, whose more than 1,600 vacant properties include 229 vacant buildings primarily in north St. Louis.

Large-scale absentee property owners typically snap up abandoned buildings and lots at auctions, then sit on them for years waiting for the right economic conditions to resell them or use them in land assemblages. McKee is notorious, though hardly alone, when it comes to buying nuisance properties then leaving maintenance for the city to deal with.

The neglect of the city’s growing homeless problem, coupled with a massive array of derelict buildings, create exactly the kinds of conditions that led to Polson’s death.

Mayor Tishaura Jones, members of the Board of Aldermen and business leaders should ask themselves how many more first responders must be sacrificed before they get serious about confronting the elephant in the room instead of waiting for someone else to deal with it.

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