INDIANAPOLIS - Neighbors said homeless people seeking shelter may have led to a house fire just east of downtown Saturday afternoon.
Indianapolis firefighters responded to smoke and flames emanating from a home on the 1000 block of St. Peter Street, near the intersection of Prospect Street and Keystone Avenue.
IFD crews were able to get the fire under control in 10 minutes. They estimated damage to the home at $20,000.
Witnesses told police they'd observed several homeless people seeking shelter in the residence earlier in the day from cold temperatures. Though Saturday's afternoon temperatures hovered just below 30 degrees, RTV6 meteorologists said wind chill could make it feel as low as 14 degrees out.
IFD Public Information Officer Rita Reith told RTV6 that reports of fires due to homeless people seeking shelter tend to ramp up as temperatures drop.
"As soon as the weather starts getting cold, we'll start getting a lot of complaints after a fire breaks out," Reith said. "People think, because it's a vacant house, it must be arson. The fact of the matter is we have a lot of homeless folks who will try to seek shelter and they'll cook or try to start a fire, and a house fire will break out."
Reith said dramatic temperature shifts like the Midwest saw the past week can exacerbate the problem.
"Especially when it's 70 out last week and now it's freezing … a lot of people haven't figured out a place to stay when it gets cold yet," Reith said.
For property owners with unoccupied homes, Reith says asking neighbors to keep an eye out for traffic can be the best deterrent.
"Tell neighbors: This house is vacant. There shouldn't be anyone going in and out of it," Reith said.
"Unoccupied doesn't always mean permanently vacant," she added. "A lot of times homeowners are looking to sell a house. And people looking for shelter are desperate, so they're going to do what they have to."
Reith also cautioned home owners not to leave combustibles outside like gasoline canisters.
Anyone who sees unusual activity in their neighborhood is encouraged to call Crime Stoppers at 317-262-TIPS.