WASHOUGAL — Rick James was walking to the hardware store in Washougal last December when he saw a woman sleeping under a concrete overhang across the street from the post office.
“I moved to Washougal from Portland,” said the 49-year-old James. “Felony Flats. So I’ve seen a lot of homeless people. But never in Washougal before. So I stopped. Sat down and talked to her. Her name was Gloria.”
James kept stopping by. “I visited her maybe 10 times. Asked about her family. Her plans. She got a little more comfortable. I got to know her.”
How to help with a Homie
To volunteer, or to offer space for a Homie, contact Rick James at 360.702.8662, or on Facebook at His Presents.
To donate, go to calvaryofcamas.org. Click on Online Giving, then on Quick Give. From the drop-down menu of giving options at the top of the page select Other, then enter His Presents in the Additional Information window. Or mail a contribution to Calvary Community Church, 2717 NE 3rd Ave., Camas, WA 98607. Include a note designating the contribution for His Presents.
About that time, James says, a friend sent him a link.
“A guy in California had built a little portable shelter for a homeless lady,” said James, owner of Washougal’s Lordboard Drywall, who has 28 years of construction experience. “So I thought, ‘I’m gonna build her one.’”
“She was really touched. But she wouldn’t accept it,’’ James said. “Then I get this call. ‘A church wants to talk to you.’” It was Pastor Jessie Smith of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Washougal.
“And Pastor Jessie says, ‘I hear you build houses for homeless people.’ And I say, ‘Well . . .’” James raises his eyebrows and grins, “Yeah, I guess so!’ And she wanted it. So we set it up there at St. Anne’s.”
Word spread. Arnada Abbey, a hospitality house providing low-cost transitional housing in Vancouver’s Arnada neighborhood, provided space for five shelters. Hazel Dell’s First Congregational Church asked for one. James’s own church, Calvary Community Church in Camas, took one.
People started giving James money for construction expenses. He wasn’t comfortable keeping the money himself, so he got Calvary Community to take the money for him. And he kept building shelters in his barn, one at a time, 12 to date. Homies he calls them. Each one costs approximately $625 in materials.
“And we give ‘em a key, and say, ‘This is yours,’’’ James said. “They’re 4×8. With a loft, so people have somewhere to put their stuff. And I try to make them cute. I want them to be cute. First, so the people who get them know I love them. And then to keep the peace with the neighbors.”
Two Homies at Arnada Abbey are on the front lawn, but Deacon David Knudtson says the city of Vancouver has not bothered them.
“The city has completely left us alone,” he says. “I’ve been told anecdotally–not in writing, but anecdotally — that they consider them camping equipment. And you’re allowed to camp in the city from 9:30 at night until 6:30 in the morning. So from my perspective, they’re camping.”
James says some police harass Homie owners; others tell him the Homies are a great idea. Churches are split as well.
“Some jump right on board. Like Jessie’s church,’’ James said. “They put them in the parking lot, let them use the kitchen, put out a porta-potty. But the neighbors are pretty mixed. And even within churches, it’s 50-50. There are people who want to think about it, and talk about it, and make rules about it. I’m more spontaneous.”
James describes himself as “a little rough around the edges.” He sports a number of large Christian tattoos, both words — Priesthood, Faith, Set Free — and symbols, including a large cross and stylized Christian fish on the side of his neck.
Married 29 years, James and his wife, Cyndi, are parents of six kids — three biological and three adopted from Cambodia. They’ve been foster parents to over 40 kids in the past ten years, and are in the process of adopting another little girl. They currently have seven kids at home, ranging in age from 12-20.
James says his greatest needs are for volunteers with carpentry skills and tools, and donors who will pledge a small amount each month, so he can budget for expenses. He also plans to draw up blueprints, so that others can build Homies in their own garages.
“It’s not about giving them a box to get out of the rain. It’s about giving them help to move on,” James says. “People feel like they’re not worth anything. But you dust ‘em off just a bit, and there’s hope.”