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Fire shines light on homeless issue

Hidden shelter took people with problematic backgrounds


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Shawn Heist, 47, surveys the ruins of the rural retreat he stumbled onto last August with his girlfriend and 21-year-old son. He said Elton Humiston, homeowner and manager of the unofficial transitional shelter, was firm but fair with residents and like a father figure to me.Elton Humiston took in people other shelters wouldn't — and had to break the law to do it.

“There’s the law. And there’s whatever your conscience tells you to do,” said Humiston, whose 8,000-square-foot rural retreat and unofficial, low-cost “shelter” housed a revolving cast of 20 to 25 homeless people for about a dozen years.

“It’s illegal as hell,” Humiston said. “If I were legal I could only have five people.”

But in Humiston’s eyes it wasn't wrong. “There’s right and wrong. And then there’s the legal system,” he said.

There's also a financial benefit for Humiston, but it's well worth it for his renters.

“He has been a godsend,” said Shawn Heist, one of the people Humiston squeezed into his four-bathroom, two-kitchen, three-story log home.

“Most everyone that moved in here didn’t have nothing,” Heist said.

The home was a small, safe sanctuary for people on society’s bottom rung — until Saturday, when even “nothing” disappeared.

Up in smoke

Humiston, 70, was cooking pasta for the residents Saturday night when one of them ran in and yelled “Fire!”

Humiston dashed from the kitchen to the northeast corner of the house and emptied his four fire extinguishers on the blaze while other residents tried to fight it with a garden hose and still others tried dousing it with buckets of water from the pond.

The 911 call came in at 6:20 p.m. and a Forest Grove Fire Division Chief reached the hilly, forested site on the 5400 block of S.W. Hergert Road in seven minutes, followed by four engines and two water tenders from several different agencies, according to spokesman Matt Johnston.

After using up the 750 gallons stored on each engine, firefighters had to suck water from tenders on Hergert up the long, forested driveway through more than 1,300 feet of hose, Johnston said.

They tried fighting the flames from inside the house but had to withdraw from the intense heat. It took more than an hour to extinguish the fire. Its cause is still under investigation, Johnston said.

No one was hurt, but the house is now a charred, soggy ruin.

“It’s terrible,” Heist said.

Humiston, who lived there with his 14-year-old grandson, said the home was insured but he has no plans to rebuild: "I'm too damn old to start over."

Benefits on both sides

A former salesman and carpet cleaner, the 70-year-old Humiston first opened his home to the homeless after his wife, Ruth, died in 2001.

Ruth was a friend of Verla Fuller, then executive director of Open Door, whose staff began referring their homeless clients to Humiston.

“He’s my angel,” said Kaja Perkowski, a psychiatrist with Open Door. “There is nothing in Washington County for single adults. The shelters are only for families.”

The only exceptions to this are cases involving youth or domestic-violence victims, said Annette Evans, homeless program coordinator for Washington County.

Humiston took in not just single people but sometimes mentally ill people or people with criminal backgrounds or drug and alcohol struggles — people other shelters might not accept, Perkowski said.

Before they arrived on his doorstep, Humiston said, many of his renters would be sleeping in bushes or under bridges or behind buildings or sometimes — if they were women — riding the MAX all night so they wouldn’t get molested.

On Sunday, a grateful former resident who now manages apartments sent out a special delivery of chicken, potato salad, donuts and coffee, Humiston said, surprising the still stunned, grieving residents as they picked through the wreckage.

Although not all his residents could pay rent, Humiston got a financial benefit from those who could, including many who received government stipends for disability or poverty. Humiston charged them $400 a month for a private room, a common kitchen, one free meal a day, and common gathering space which included two pianos and a TV with cable.

“It helps me pay the bills,” he said.

Billy Croft, an injured welder who lived there for eight years, was on the $400 plan. So was Heist, an injured logger who recently qualified for Social Security Disability payments.

“I was one of the ‘Ax Men,’” said Heist, referring to a reality TV show that started in 2008. He said he wasn’t a main character and only showed up briefly in a Christmas dinner scene, but he still wears his red “Mike Pihl Logging” suspenders.

Heist lived for five years in a house across from the 76 station on Hawthorne Street in Forest Grove, until logging injuries kept him from working. By 2010 he couldn’t pay the $800 rent, he said.

So Heist stored his belongings in a $160-per-month storage space and slept outside with his girlfriend and son (now 21) for the next two years, until police kicked them off a patch near Gales Creek and they learned about Humiston’s place.

Heist retrieved his bed, dressers, chair, DVD/VHS player and all the other trappings of his previous, socially acceptable life on Hawthorne Street and lugged them up to his family’s new home at Humiston’s place last August.

He and his girlfriend were able to watch videos from their bed, as if they were in a normal home.

Now most of those possessions are ruined. “We lost all of our electronics. They’re toast,” Heist said.

One woman lost the cremation ashes and her last photos of her mother, who died a few years ago.

They are all about to lose their little community of outcasts and the lush, natural setting.

With help from Red Cross vouchers, one family and six single fire refugees spent three nights at the Budget Inn in Forest Grove.

Monday, Community Action and Luke-Dorf representatives screened them and either qualified them on the spot for homeless and housing programs, or scheduled followup appointments.

That doesn’t mean everyone will immediately have a home, said Evans, who connected local social-service agencies with the Red Cross for an emergency meeting about Humiston's displaced residents.

They’d need to apply for housing and be willing and able to work toward self-sufficiency through a program, Evans said. Some might reject that approach. For others, it could take time.

Humiston's home "was a great resource to provide them instant housing,” she said. "It filled a gap." But many of those people could have found a place through the county's homeless-response system "if we had known about them,” she said.

It's unlikely many of those places would have the natural beauty of Humiston's home, with wooded views from the broad back deck and wide front porch.

“I love it here. It’s beautiful. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful,” Heist said Monday from a shady spot beneath the trees outside the blackened structure. Around him, birds twittered softly and housemates sorted through belongings, hanging blankets and clothing from lines strung between trees, trying to keep up their spirits.

“The fire added a skylight for us,” joked Terrie Holt, 46.

Heist lugged a wet mattress out of the ruins and joined the others to help unload a pickup full of donated food.

“We’re gonna try to help one another and try to clean things up," he said. "’Cause all we got left is one another.”




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