On July 24, at around 7:30 pm, Matt Armstrong exited I-805 to Home Avenue and saw smoke on the way to his City Heights home.
“I saw like seven-eight fire engines,” Armstrong said, “the car wash and laundromat were closed down, this ampm/Arco was still up and running.”
Armstrong knew that one day, there was going to be a fire behind the ampm/Arco gas station or behind its neighbors’ properties: Pearl Carwash, Pearl Laundromat and/or Goodwill Store which is closest to Fairmont Ave.
“The homeless lady over here was getting evicted,” he said, “and she and her boyfriend were having a domestic dispute.”
“Actually her man told her, 'You are not allowed to stay here anymore,'” said Lynn, an ampm employee, “so she lit it on fire.”
“Lit what on fire?” I asked.
“She set their bed on fire,” Armstrong said. “Oh, and I just found out today that she’s about 26-27 and pregnant.”
Lynn’s been an employee here for over 12 years and admitted to have seen some “crazy stuff,” but like Armstrong, knew a fire in the brush behind her store was bound to happen.
“It’s not the first time she did this; it's already been two times,” she said.
At about 10:30 a.m, on July 27, I met Armstrong by the gas station; he rolled up in a mini-truck and we parked behind the carwash, closer to where the fire occurred.
“Lemme show you, Mike, grab my hand, and I’ll help you down the culvert.” he said.
As I stepped into the culvert, the first thing that I noticed was a barbecue grill surrounded by a can of Fix-a-Flat, a bottle of fuel treatment, a cowboy hat, and plastic bags strewn about.
“This is all private property so the City can’t go back there,” Armstrong said, “but we are working on it, and we have letters in the working now. [The property owners] are going to post No Trespassing signs, and the homeless won’t be allowed back here anymore, and when they are not allowed, I’m going back there to clean it all up.”
In 2017, Armstrong cleaned up 2000 lbs. of trash from Manzanita Canyon, which is less than a mile away and closer to where he lives. In 2018 he has continued to pick up trash, but he’s been the target of “haters” online that troll on him for cleaning up abandoned homeless encampments.
“Trespassers will hang by the heads,” read a sign next to a hanging noose, was left by one of his last haters.
Armstrong, a black-belt martial-arts instructor, is not deterred by the real-life haters and the “keyboard bandits.”
“They do drug trafficking back there,” said Lynn, “I’ve seen on my cameras that there’s a lot of movement in the canyon at night and you see different people coming in and out. They bother our customers, they ask them for money, and some customers don’t even want to get out of their cars as they pump gas.”
When Armstrong showed me the charred remains of the bed, bike-parts, complete bikes, trash and dry bamboo were evident within eyesight of the u-shaped culvert; I even tripped by a blue can of kerosine which was in the middle of dry vegetation.
“This culvert leads straight to the ocean,” he said.
As I looked westbound, the culvert lead under the 805 freeway. Houses are about 400 feet from the burned area.
“I can see they have defensible space," Armstrong said. "They planted [succulents] over there, but over here maybe not."
When Armstrong does his cleanups with his tongs and industrial strength bags, he loads up on pamphlets.
“I give them like medical literature, or if they’re on drugs, literature to help get them off drugs, needle exchange information."