SALEM — The temperature hovered around zero Friday night when a propane tank exploded inside a homeless encampment deep in the woods behind Wal-Mart on Highland Avenue.
The gas explosion lit a tent on fire and ignited the clothes of a 35-year-old homeless man who had been adjusting the propane tank, according to police. The man, who was burned on his face and hands, was taken to a Boston hospital with what police described as non-life-threatening injuries.
A 50-year-old woman living with him was not seriously injured, according to police. The woman told police she was asleep when she heard the explosion and awoke to find her friend “on fire.”
The Jan. 3 incident put a spotlight on the extreme face of homelessness: people living outside in winter despite brutally cold temperatures, snow and wind.
Salem police say the two people in the tent are the only ones they know of living outside this winter. They conceded, however, that they weren’t aware of this couple before the incident and don’t patrol deep in the woods, where the homeless often camp.
There are homeless living outside in other communities, according to area officials.
“We know of at least one out in the woods,” said Kate Benashski, executive director of River House, a 34-bed shelter in Beverly.
The man, who is in his 50s, lives in a secluded section of woods, inside a double tent with blankets, military-issue gear and a sleeping bag. Benashski said she has tried to get him to come inside, but so far, she has been unsuccessful.
“Sometimes people won’t go in a shelter,” she said. “... It defies logic for most of us, but there are some people who would rather be out than in a crowded shelter.”
Peabody doesn’t have a shelter, but some homeless eat at Haven from Hunger, a food program on Wallis Street.
“I absolutely have people that are still outside, much to my dismay,” said Alyse Barbash, executive director of Haven From Hunger. “A lot are outside because they ... choose alcohol over a roof. They come in here around 4 p.m. and then head back out around 6, so it’s two hours of warmth and shelter.”
Peter Mirandi, director of Health and Veterans Affairs in Danvers, said he is not aware of anyone living outside this winter in his town, but he has known of homeless living outdoors in the past. In August, he said, they broke up an encampment at a contaminated Superfund site off Clinton Avenue.
“The biggest challenge I found over the years is they don’t want to come into a shelter,” he said. “... Someone last year was boasting, ‘This would be my 18th year out here.’ They find a spot, and they stay low.”
In extreme cases, or when there are clear legal or mental health issues, police say they can take an individual into protective custody.
Salem used to have people living outside in winter — in vacant buildings, a boatyard, under ramps or in the woods.
Whether coincidence or not, that number appeared to drop when police formed a Community Impact Unit about six years ago that checks on the homeless and works closely with Lifebridge, the local shelter, to connect people living on the streets with services.
In fact, Sgt. Harry Rocheville, one of the heads of the CIU, is vice chairman of Lifebridge’s board of directors.
On extremely cold nights, the CIU goes to Lifebridge to talk to an outreach worker and the homeless living at the shelter to see if they know of anyone outside. The officers then make regular stops at the usual places — the stairwells of city parking garages, ledges under bridges, entryways at condominium complexes, bank ATM areas and a few secluded or wooded areas.
“We’re just not finding the numbers we found in the past, and, hopefully, we don’t,” said Rocheville.
The man who was burned in the propane explosion was known to police, Rocheville said.
“I don’t think he wants any part of (the shelter),” said Rocheville. “He’s gone from place to place to place outside.”
Although Lifebridge, a sober shelter with 52 beds in winter, changed its policy late last year and stopped accepting the overflow of homeless who show up in cold weather, Rocheville said that policy has been lifted when necessary this winter, and the doors have been open on the coldest nights.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.