On a sunny Saturday afternoon on a lot just off North 15th between Main and College, a small group of people gathered to celebrate the completion of a new home.
Some nice words were shared, RobinJeanne Parks sang and Pastor Aaron Deneui offered a blessing and prayer. A few snapped photos with their cellphones, others toured the new structure and many enjoyed refreshments.
All of those on hand had a smile for the woman responsible for the newest addition to what have become known as “Harriet houses.” The just-completed house features three studio apartments with a common kitchen area.
Harriet Hughes is well-known in Philomath for the houses she oversees. With the latest addition, there are now 79 rooms in 11 housing units around town.
“We’ve been doing the rooms for 20 years and we had rental houses prior to that — single-family places,” Hughes said. “We’ve learned a lot over the years.”
With great demand — she currently has a waiting list of six people — Hughes has been able to utilize the space to best serve those residents, some of whom had been homeless. The typical Hughes property is set up like a boarding house with private spaces and common areas and all with affordable rent.
Among those celebrating the opening of the latest Hughes rooms was Cindy Marie, who has been a tenant for the past eight years. She said she’s been through near-death experiences and battled alcoholism only to find a savior in Hughes.
“I don’t know how to communicate all the help that I’ve had and the love that I’ve had for this woman, helping me find transport to have my body operated on,” said Marie with a tone of reverence in her voice. “All the tenants just love Harriet. Lots of them call her Mom.”
Many of those who stay in “Harriet houses” are people who cannot rent anywhere else — those that can’t get past credit checks or the screening requirements that have become common at most professional property management firms.
“We have very limited guidelines,” Hughes said. “You can be on parole, you can just have come out of prison, you can be a sex offender at a low level that allows you in the community.”
And of course, if they can pay the rent, “that’s very good,” she added.
The “Harriet houses” especially fill a need for individuals and families that are either homeless or very close to being homeless.
“Until there’s a place for them to live, to shower, to prepare their food, to keep their belongings safe, you can’t even go to work when you’re out there homeless because somebody will probably steal your belongings,” Hughes said.
People that are referred to Hughes often come from outside the community.
“These homeless people did not all come from Philomath,” she said. “I get calls from Sweet Home, from Lebanon, from the police departments, from social service agencies, from the hospitals, from the nursing homes. People are desperate.”
Carla Rigor, housing manager for Harriet Hughes homes in Philomath, said she has developed a new perspective on individuals and families that have difficult struggles in life, including homelessness.
“I tell you what, it’s very different about how you think of homeless people if you’ve never experienced anything they’ve been in,” Rigor said. “You get put into it and you’re seeing people and it dramatically changes how you think. It’s like we’re on the inside now and we’re seeing what people are going through and their struggles.”
The new unit at 124 N. 15th St., features three 16-by-16-foot studio apartments with their own bathrooms and a shared kitchen area.
“It has a kitchen sink and beautiful kitchen cupboards,” Hughes said. “We’ll give them a two-burner hotplate and a microwave and they have a little (mini) refrigerator. And then there’s the shared kitchen in the back with a big refrigerator and an electric stove.”
Located on one end of the kitchen will be a coin-operated washer and dryer. There’s also a half-bathroom in that part of the house.
“We had planned on all showers (in each private bathroom) but one lady wanted a tub so I got online and looked at how we can put in a tub in the least amount of space,” Hughes said with a laugh. “Sometimes old people like to soak in the tub.”
Hughes said she was told that the site would qualify under Housing and Urban Development guidelines.
“These we’re asking $550 and we play all the utilities,” Hughes said about the studio apartments. “HUD as I understand it, would pay $695, but we’re trying to keep things affordable.”
Hughes said she chose specific people to occupy the new rooms. Two people turned down the opportunity to live there because they were happy with their current shared housing situations.
“This week, the Lord gave me a good thought: From now on, when a room comes empty, it will be offered to a person who has been with us for quite a while and has shown stability,” she said.
A one-bedroom house had been sitting on the property but Hughes tore it down to put up the new structure. There had been some rumblings about Hughes’s plans during a city council meeting a couple of years ago.
Ultimately, councilors opted to lower the number of unrelated adults who can live in a single-family home from five to three in low-density residential zones. Her existing rental properties were grandfathered in under the old rules.
“Once we got into it, it went very smoothly,” Hughes said about the project which took about four months. “The builder did a super job.”
Rigor said shared living spaces don’t work for everybody but added that there are always people in need.
“Keeping it private, I think, is the quickest way of building and probably the most affordable,” Rigor said in reference to a commercial developer, for example. “I just wish there was more. I wish more people would do it.”
Rigor said the new home with the three studio apartments was built specifically for this need, but she wished others who have a house that they’re not doing anything with would consider doing something similar with the space.
“I guess for us, it’s not the money issue,” Rigor said. “It’s just being able to get people into someplace to live so they’re not on the streets.”
And she’s experienced other benefits.
“The neat thing is, you make friends with people,” Rigor said. “It’s not just your own little groupie thing, you’re meeting people that you’ve never had contact with before.”
Hughes, who is active with Suburban Christian Church in Philomath, believes it’s her duty to help others.
“We feel if he gives us specific gifts, he wants us to exercise these gifts,” Hughes said. “He’s told us, if they’re without a house, without food, without clothes, we’re to help them.”