Shelter from the storm

Washougal man builds tiny homes for people living on the streets

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To make a tax deductible donation to His Presents, visit wwww.calvaryofcamas.org, and write “His Presents” in the donation subject line.

For more information about the organization, visit its Facebook page or call Rick James at 770-4212.

Rick James was walking to True Value Hardware in Washougal a year ago when he saw something that stopped him in his tracks.

A homeless woman was sleeping next to a vacant downtown space. James, who has a passion for helping the less fortunate, stopped and asked what she needed.

“My family and I have been driving to Portland for years to help the homeless there, but I never realized we had a need right where I live,” he said. “After I met Gloria, my eyes were opened.”

He posted what he had seen on Facebook, and a friend replied with a link showing a man who encountered a similar situation, and began building tiny houses for the homeless.

James, who has worked in construction for 28 years, had his interest piqued.

“I thought, ‘I can do that,’ so I built one for Gloria,” he said.

The 4- by 8-foot house, called a ‘homie,’ included a lock for privacy and security, a window, storage space and wheels so that it could be moved if needed.

“She wouldn’t accept the house from me, but by then, I realized that homeless people were everywhere and there was an immediate need for shelter,” James said.

Soon after, he was contacted by St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Washougal, which participates in a Safe Car Camping Program for the homeless, as well as First Congregational Church in Hazel Dell, and brought his tiny houses to them.

Rev. Jessie Smith, vicar at St. Anne’s, noted that having a dry place to stay and store belongings can be invaluable.

“St. Anne’s took the first tiny house Rick built and began housing a homeless woman,” she said. “After eight months with us, she recently moved onto permanent housing. Without the stability, safety and community connection she was offered staying in a tiny house, she would not be where she is today.”

Soon after, the church took a second house, as well as a third and fourth temporarily.

“Over the last year, we have offered a safe place for more than 26 individuals, including many women and children,” she said. “When I am showing the tiny house to a new guest who needs a place to stay safe, dry and warm, I usually say to them ‘You deserve so much more than this, but hopefully staying here will be a step toward a real home.'”

James also created a Facebook page for his organization and named it “His Presents,” with the mission of being, “the tangible hands of Jesus by reaching out to our homeless community, in an effort to instill hope through homes.”

“Jesus’ presence in my life is what motivates me to do this,” James said. “But a lot of the time when I talk to the homeless, it doesn’t come up. I don’t want them to think I am a freak with my own agenda. I just want to help.”

In the year since it was formed, His Presents has received approximately $12,000 in donations and constructed 11 tiny homes. James has created a construction blueprint and estimated the cost of each home at $625. It takes 16 to 18 hours for one person to construct it. Thankfully, he has a core of volunteers to help, but is looking for a place to store materials so that homes can be built by others as well. Cash donations are also needed.

“We have a pretty big need here in Clark County and are four or five houses behind,” he said. “I would like to keep on helping people get into these ‘homies.'”

James began helping the homeless 12 years ago, after what he refers to as “alcoholism and pure stupidity,” almost landed him on the street.

“Thank God I realized it, but it also gave me a heart for the homeless,” he said. “There is a misconception out there that people enjoy being homeless, but really there are very few who genuinely want to be on the streets. They want to be warm, dry and have a place to stay.”

Three of his houses have been donated to the Arnada Abbey, a hospitality house providing low-cost transitional housing in Vancouver’s Arnada neighborhood. James’s own church, Calvary Community Church in Camas, also took one.

James noted that a ‘homie,’ can be a first step for people who are struggling to get off the street.

He has heard success stories about people going to drug and alcohol treatment, or securing a job, as a result of having somewhere safe to sleep at night, if only temporarily.

“It’s also good for the community because people tend to take pride in having a house,” he said. “There is less garbage left around from camping and these can be easily moved if there is a problem.”

Community response to his tiny homes has been overwhelmingly positive, James added.

“We’ve had lots of offers of volunteer help,” he said. “This is a great community, and we all care for the most part, about what is going on with these people. It’s a great way to bring everyone together.”

Reactions to receiving a tiny home range from tears of joy to big hugs. James enjoys it all.

“I love to hand the keys to them and see that moment where they cannot deny that someone cares,” he said.

And it doesn’t stop with building houses for the homeless.

“Everyone who does this is very invested,” James said. “We are checking up on them and making sure they have the opportunities they need.”