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Suspicious fire guts health clinic where homeless bed down on porch at night
Health Fire
A fire of suspicious origin gutted the San Joaquin County Health Department in the 100 block of Sycamore Avenue. - photo by GLENNKAHL/The Bulletin

Another suspicious fire laid waste to a third building in downtown Manteca frequented by the homeless when night falls.
The San Joaquin County Health Department clinic was gutted by a fire after midnight Monday in the 100 block of Sycamore Avenue across a parking lot from the boarded up and burned out two-story Sycamore Arms building. That fire took place 30 months ago.
Manteca Fire Battalion Chief David Marques said the fire broke out in the brick structure where a group of homeless individuals had been camping on the front porch of the facility that serves 2,000 patients a month.
One homeless man had his small dog tied up to a post on the porch of the clinic where it was overcome by smoke and died. Witnesses said the dog was placed in a small box and buried nearby.
Chief Marques said when the first engine arrived the fire was visible on the front exterior of the building with several bystanders attempting to extinguish the blaze with little results. The initial fire engine crew extinguished the fire on the exterior of the building and prepared to make entry through the front door.
Additional firefighters arrived to open vertical ventilation and secondary attack lines. The chief said it was quickly determined that the fire had spread from the exterior of the building into the attic and was working its way toward the rear of the structure through the attic. 
“Due to the heavy construction and multiple concealed spaces, it was difficult and time consuming to completely extinguish the fire,” Chief Marques added.
The fire was brought under control in about one hour. The overhaul component continued for several more hours.  The fire was deemed to be suspicious in nature with a number of witnesses coming forward to talk with fire investigators on Monday.
The loss was pegged at $170,000.
 A building restoration crew arrived mid-morning and erected fencing around the building. 
County officials said patients needing to be seen for medical services will need to go to either Sharpe Depot or Tracy until a suitable location can be found in Manteca.
If the blaze was determined to have been started by a homeless warming fire, it will be the third structure to burn for that reason in downtown. A small house that was once used as an office for a used car lot on the southwest corner of East Yosemite and Lincoln avenues had three blazes that the fire department responded to until the city last year took steps to raze the structure.
At least a dozen fires of suspicious origin have occurred in vacant buildings where homeless were illegal trespassing that authorities have indicated warming fires may have started have gutted Manteca buildings in recent years. The list includes a home across from Manteca High, vacant houses in the 600 block of North Lincoln that have since been razed, a former meat packing plant on West Yosemite Avenue next to Cabral Motors, the Gordon home that burned several times that was located down the street from the Union Road fire station before it was razed to make way for school, plus at least four structures along Moffat Boulevard.
The homeless have been seen bedding down night after night on the porch of the health department building. Although Manteca put in place an anti-camping law on private property, authorities indicated the health clinic property was fair game for anyone to camp on given it is public property. That means the homeless can sleep on any unsecured public property that isn’t posted as being closed to everyone such as parks for a seven-hour period between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. That also means sleeping is allowed on public sidewalks during that time period as long as enough space is left for handicapped passages. That effectively rules out residential areas while keeping wider commercial district sidewalks available to people who chose to sleep there.
The ordinance change adopted in 2016 also made it illegal to camp, occupy camp facilities, or use camp paraphernalia in the following areas:
*The Manteca Transit Center at 220 Moffat Blvd.
*The Moffat Community Center at 580 Moffat Blvd.
The city did not include the library grounds or the Civic Center at 1001 W. Center St. on the advice of specialized counsel hire to defend the city against a class action lawsuit brought by three homeless men who argued the city was violating their constructional rights by clearing them from sidewalks.
The ordinance was modeled of those in other California cities where the municipal code has passed muster with legal challenges. It essentially acknowledged the need of homeless to sleep — hence the reference to sitting on lying on public property for between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. It also allows enforcement of quality of life laws impacting the entire community.
The problem of homeless bedding down in the library courtyard where they routinely damaged lights, trashed the area, and used it as a bathroom prompted the city last year to spend $7,000 for wrought iron fencing with gates to secure the area when the library is closed.
A third of the six structures in the 100 block of Sycamore Avenue in downtown Manteca are now burned out.

To contact Glenn Kahl, email