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.