Local Journalism Happens With YouSupport

Burning Hand Sanitizer to Stay Alive on the Streets of LA

There are an estimated 60,000 unhoused residents in LA County, and only 366 beds in winter shelters.

pouring a lit candle onto shaved woodchips in three metal tins
(Photo: Jack Ross | Knock LA)

Like most everyone else he knows, excepting Victor, who lives across the street in a garden of disassembled bicycles, Harlan uses hand sanitizer to start his fires. It’s the common wisdom, to use hand sanitizer. For a while, he used distilled alcohol. That was a clean burn. 

But he ran out, so hand sanitizer it is, drizzled over pizza boxes in the propane tank he found on the street. The resulting fire flares green and threatens to overwhelm the furnace door. Harlan unfolds a long wire with nails glued up and down its length, making it look like a spine, and pokes at the nuclear ashes. 

For anti-homeless crusaders and some members of the Los Angeles City Council, fires set by unhoused people offer an excuse to advocate for encampment sweeps. After a homeless man was charged with starting the more than 1,200-acre Palisades Fire in spring 2021, Councilmember Joe Buscaino said that over “60% of the fires that the LAFD has responded to this year have been related to homelessness” and that “allowing unregulated, sprawling encampments is not compassionate, it’s reckless.” 

But warmth isn’t negotiable when you’re sleeping outside in the winter. 

If you don’t light a fire in your tent, the only source of warmth is your body, says Harlan, and that may not be enough heat to survive through a night with lows in the 40s, or colder. On the evening of January 4, 2022, it was 37 degrees in LA County. More people die of hypothermia in Los Angeles than in San Francisco and New York combined, and nearly all deaths from the cold occur in December, January, and February. Beyond wearing lots of clothing and lighting a fire, the only other way to stay warm that Harlan can think of is to examine his tent for drafts and then scour his roof,  a patchwork of blue tarps, for holes; he never mentions getting shelter from the city.

In cold or rainy weather, Los Angeles County only opens eight winter shelters, containing a total of 366 beds, and an additional “weather-activated” shelter — for more than 60,000 unhoused people. Of those shelters, Knock LA confirmed that six were congregate, placing occupants in one communal room where they risk contracting COVID-19. One of the city’s largest non-congregate shelter programs, Project Roomkey, is ending. (Winter is ongoing and unhoused residents still badly need warm clothes. Donations to mutual aid groups like Ktown for All and Project Ropa can help people survive cold nights. For updates on mutual aid, subscribe to the Mutual Aid Network LA’s Monthly Dispatch.)

When Harlan found a fuel tank made of a flimsy dark metal on the street, he thought it would make a good smoker for cooking meats, like people do in North Carolina and West Virginia, where he was raised. His parents worked the night shift at a factory, leaving when Harlan and his sisters went to bed to package cucumbers and make T-Locks (a type of latch used to connect wooden beams in American houses), and returning in the morning when Harlan and his sisters went to school. 

a makeshift lantern/warmer with a small fire burning inside
(Photo: Jack Ross | Knock LA)

So Harlan carved a hole in the wall of his tank with a knife and started looking for a rack to place the meat on. Soon he gave up on his smoker idea and converted the tank to a simple fireplace, which he lights in his tent most nights. For additional warmth, Harlan wears three layers under his Harvard Westlake Wolverines sweatshirt (Harvard Westlake being the alma mater of the mayor of Los Angeles), and at least two pairs of pants. 

The coldest night of Harlan’s life might have been the first night of rain around Christmas, 2021. His tent flooded. “I couldn’t get to sleep,” he says. “I was just sitting up shivering like a motherfucker all night. I thought I was going to get sick.” 

Harlan has a mustache and scruff and blue eyes. He moved to Los Angeles because of his brother, who isn’t really his brother, but a best friend from childhood. “Wherever he was at, I was right there with him,” Harlan says. Harlan was washing dishes in a restaurant in North Carolina when his brother messaged him, revealing out of the blue that he had moved to Los Angeles. Bull crap, Harlan said. His brother sent him his location on Messenger and Harlan asked for extra dishwashing shifts to cover a plane ticket. The chosen brothers shared an apartment until the pandemic began, when they lost their security jobs with Allied Universal, began to argue, and Harlan’s brother kicked him out. “We’re starting to talk again,” Harlan says, hopefully.

Victor does not burn hand sanitizer. He chips wax out of memorial candles he picks up in corner stores and drops the white shavings into a muffin tin. 

Then he takes his knife and shaves wood off the tree next to his tent and places it with the wax in the tins. He lights some cardboard and spreads the flame around the wood chips, where they burn slowly into the wax.

Victor passes his time as a kind of local (and very popular) street engineer — fixing bikes, speakers, and a range of other appliances while supporting the business through barter. “You don’t have to have any money if you know what people want,” he says. Recent trades include: one 20-inch BMX bicycle for boxing gloves, one road bicycle for Air Jordans, two motorcycle tires for a sword. On January 7, he is removing the insole from a ratty shoe one seam at a time with a traded knife. The insole will replace an insole in one of his Air Jordans, which was removable, and which someone stole. When asked how he ended up living outside, Victor says, “Divorce.”

“It keeps the carbon monoxide down,” Victor says of his wax method. “It’s stronger than a candle. It’s clean as a candle. And it keeps you warm and alive. You wake up.”

The metal is important because at some point in the night, the fire will get hot enough to explode glass. Hand sanitizer works as an accelerant (probably too well) but it burns off the wood without infusing it like wax does with the wood and cardboard, meaning you have to relight the fire at a certain point. And sanitizer is toxic.

“I smoke,” Victor says. “I don’t need anything else.”

Half of a memorial candle, converted into a firestarter in this method, will burn for around four hours. 

Editor’s note: the names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved.