Fire hinders SE Portland agency’s efforts to help destitute, homeless

While a potentially-avoidable fire at Human Solutions’ main office has knocked them down at a critical time, learn how they’re still helping very low-income folks get the housing – and warmth – they need, as winter sets in …

From this now-closed building, Human Solutions serves 30,000 of East Portland’s families most needy people every year.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Even though it was Sunday, several workers were busy in the main office of the nonprofit organization Human Solutions at 12350 SE Powell Boulevard, getting ready for their “busy season”, helping families in need.

October is when Human Solutions begins its annual drive to help thousands of very low-income families who live in a large area from the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood eastward to Gresham to obtain energy assistance – vouchers, to help them “keep the lights on” during the cold winter months.

Noticing fire on the roof of Human Solutions’ main office roof as they happened by, firefighters from Portland Fire & Rescue report the blaze, then stop to fight it. Truck Seven’s crew scrambles to extinguish the blaze. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

“Fire alarms in the building went off, alerting our people to get out of the building,” recalled their Executive Director, Jean DeMaster, as she walked through the now-vacant office building.

“The fire scared them tremendously,” DeMaster continued. “Some of the staff people were sitting right under where the fire broke out – it was only eight feet above their desks.”

Firefighters cut apart the building’s rooftop HVAC system to reach the spreading fire. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Firefighters pour thousands of gallons of water onto the cut-open roof and HVAC system to extinguish the blaze – it also drenches computers, desks, and office supplies in the rooms below. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Although the result of that blaze is devastating, DeMaster added, “There were two fortunate things. First, all of our people got out without injury. Second, a passing fire truck saw the fire, called for help, and immediately began fighting the fire.”

“At 12:50 p.m., firefighters from Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) SE Portland Station 7 arrived at the scene with an engine and truck and found flames coming through the roof,” confirmed PF&R spokesman Lt. Justin de Ruyter.

Two fire truck crews used aerial ladders to extend hose lines to the roof and quickly knock down the blaze, de Ruyter stated. “The fire was contained to the roof.”

Jean DeMaster, Executive Director of Human Solutions, points to the temporary cover where the roof was burned and cut away during the suspected roofing fire.

After firefighters ventilated the building, it was clear that the blaze had caused extensive smoke and water damage in most of the building.

“One section of roof was completely missing,” DeMaster said, as she pointed out the spot, now covered temporarily. “All the computers, furniture, and files had to be taken out to be cleaned and dried off. The soot is so heavy on the wallpaper, it will have to be stripped off.”

Speaking over the roaring din of drying blowers and dehumidifiers, DeMaster said the loss of use of the building, owned by the City of Portland and leased to Human Solutions, was a continuing tragedy.

“Many low-income people don’t drive. Having our East Portland building out of service – until as late as Thanksgiving – means these clients throughout southeast Portland will need to travel to our Rockwood offices in Gresham for our services.”

High-powered blowers and commercial dehumidifiers run in the damaged building around the clock, in an effort to dry out the reception area.

And, displacing 17 of their workers couldn’t have come at a worse time, either, commented DeMaster. “We’re just starting up our ‘energy assistance’ program for the season, which serves as many as 3,000 households. Because we serve clients who speak 20 languages, helping them to know that assistance is still available – but at a different location – is challenging.”

Additional services provided from the temporarily-shuttered East Portland office include homelessness and eviction prevention, services to help households who are already homeless, and employment counseling.

Jean DeMaster looks at the damaged lighting fixtures, wiring, and ceiling, caused by the weekend fire at their East Portland building.

This photo, snapped by a Human Solutions contractor, shows the devastation on the building’s roof. Human Solutions photo

“We’re trying to reassure people in the community that despite Sunday’s fire, services will still be available,” DeMaster said. “For the next month, services will be delivered from temporary locations. Right now, people in need can access services at the Human Solutions’ Rockwood location at 124 NE 181st Avenue in Gresham. The phone number is 503-405-7875.”

While PF&R investigators haven’t yet released the fire’s cause or a damage estimate, a roofing contractor was working at the building at the time the blaze broke out, suggesting it could be construction-related.

To learn more about this agency, which directly helps 30,000 people every year, or to make a contribution, see their website: CLICK HERE to open their homepage.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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