MERCED -- Losing your home to a fire is a cruel act of fate.
But when you're homeless, fate's blows can feel like head shots and gut punches.
A.J. Fleming and his wife are fate's latest victims in Merced County.
Thursday night, the couple were burned out of the bamboo-enshrouded spot where they had been camping alongside the 16th Street Bridge at Bear Creek. The fire destroyed the little cone of security they had created during the several months they lived there.
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Thursday about 6:30 p.m., Fleming was sitting with his back to the bamboo that rose around their campsite when someone said to him there was a fire. He asked where. "Right behind you," came the reply.
"It was just a burst of flame," said Fleming, 57, who was able to drag away some of the couple's possessions and a singed tent before the fire spread. He said they lost all their food, their cooler and some clothes, among other items.
Firefighters arrived soon after the fire started and were able to get the blaze under control within 10 minutes, said Merced Fire Department Battalion Chief Shawn Henry. He said the cause is not known.
Because the bamboo is so thick, there was nowhere for the Flemings to set up their tent that night.
They didn't want to camp on the site of the burn. So they called the American Red Cross, hoping that the organization could put them up for the night.
They were denied.
The Red Cross told them the organization doesn't help homeless people.
"They said, 'Because you're homeless, we can't help you,' " according to Fleming.
"The American Red Cross doesn't have funds for the homeless population," said Ellen Knapp, the organization's regional executive. "We are disaster relief for residents who are in apartments and homes."
Knapp said when she got the call from Fleming, she called the Merced Rescue Mission, but the couple has three dogs, so they weren't admitted.
The pair ended up spending the night at Sierra Presbyterian Church at M Street and Yosemite Avenue.
On Friday morning, outside the church, Fleming told his story beside the couple's two baby carriages of belongings and their dogs. He said they didn't have a place to stay Friday night, so they would be in Courthouse Square Park.
They haven't always been homeless, said Fleming. They moved to California in 2001 from Tucson, Ariz., for work, he said. Three years ago, Fleming lost his construction job. Ever since, except for one reprieve, they've been on the streets, said Fleming.