Burned-down houses become tombs for countless squatters in Detroit; city can’t afford excavation

A homeless man was living in this abandoned apartment building before it burned down. Now he’s missing.

An untold number of bodies are buried beneath the charred rubble of burned-down houses and buildings in Detroit.

Even when neighbors tell investigators that squatters are living in vacant buildings ravaged by fire, the city rarely does more than a cursory search. Police are charged with the task of searching for bodies after a fire is out, but for whatever reason, they rarely excavate for a more detailed inspection, the Muckraker has learned in interviews with firefighters and after six months of documenting fire scenes.

On Friday night, Ronnie Owens saw the familiar face of a squatter walking into a nearby abandoned apartment building on 14th Street on the west side. It was the same man who had been sleeping there for the past six months, he said.

Then came the orange glow of flames.

“Man, there’s no way he got out of there,” Owens said, checking out the brick rubble Saturday for any sign of the middle-aged man. “This place went up. Poof.”

A man also told firefighters his uncle was in the building just before the blaze broke out. It’s unclear whether it’s the same man that Owens and other neighbors saw in the building.

With more than 80,000 vacant houses, factories and businesses across Detroit, there’s no shortage of derelict space where homeless people can sleep or cozy up to a small fire in the winter.

Abandoned buildings also are a target for arsonists.

About two years ago, an abandoned, castle-like mansion in Brush Park burned down. Although neighbors told investigators three homeless people had lived in the house, a city-financed crew demolished what remained of the building later in the day and hauled off the rubble.

Excavation is expensive for a city that can’t keep its fire hydrants functioning or its fire stations open.

“As soon as we make a call to our central office” about a possible body, “the police department is notified,” a firefighter told me, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “But trust me, you’ll rarely see anyone excavating a scene for a body. The city doesn’t have the money for it.”

Mayor Bing acknowledged the problems.

“Unfortunately we have to make difficult decisions with the limited resources we have.”

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Steve Neavling is an investigative journalist and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Living on the city’s east side, Neavling explores corruption, civil liberties and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.