Rising from the ashes

CHS grad, with help, recovering from blaze that took all he had

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Jim Houk's home of 15 years was destroyed by a fire Sept. 14 in Huetter. He's now staying at St. Vincent de Paul's shelter as he hopes that he'll be placed in the transitional housing program soon.

COEUR d'ALENE - On Sept. 14, a fire took most everything of what Jim Houk owned.

Mobile home, destroyed.

Furniture, gone.

Clothing, ruined.

The 1979 Coeur d'Alene High School graduate and former mill worker found himself in a place he never thought possible: Homeless and broke.

"It's been rough," he said.

Houk recalls walking out of the bathroom, seeing the flames later determined to be started on a mattress by a discarded cigarette, and fleeing.

"I ran out of the house with no clothes on, I just grabbed a blanket," he said.

Other than singed hair when he tried to battle the blaze with a hose, Houk was physically OK.

Mentally, emotionally, financially, not so much. The home was not insured.

"His emotions are catching up with him," said his sister, Diane Ahlers. "I think it's hit pretty hard."

The 52-year-old Houk, sitting next to his sister, fought back tears as he listened.

"Stay strong," she said, placing a hand on his shoulder.

Following the fire, Holiday Inn Express in Coeur d'Alene provided Houk with a complimentary room. American Red Cross paid for several more nights and provided vouchers for clothes and food.

He tried staying with family, but it didn't work out. He slept in his 1999 Ford truck, with a broken window, for a night, and over the weekend, camped on the property of his totaled trailer.

"The weather was decent. I slept good," he said, smiling. "I love camping."

Monday, Houk caught a break. A bed opened in the St. Vincent de Paul men's shelter in Coeur d'Alene, and he got it.

"I got lucky, " he said.

Indeed, he did.

Matt Hutchinson, St. Vincent's social services director, said the shelter has been running at its 15-bed capacity and turns people away daily.

"We are slammed," he said.

There is frequent turnover, Hutchinson said, but men in Houk's situation will find it "hit or miss" at the shelter. They must arrive early and be patient if they hope to get a bed for the night.

With fall here and winter not far behind, there will be even more demand from homeless men needing a place to stay at the only men's shelter in North Idaho.

Most don't have jobs. They don't have family in the area. They might suffer from physical or mental illness or be recovering from alcohol or drugs. The average stay is about 30 days.

"It's the same old thing," Hutchinson said. "The problems remain."

Houk has battled through his share of problems.

The former mill worker suffered several job-related injuries, and a 1992 vehicle accident left him paralyzed for a time. He later returned to the mills and drove a taxi, too, but neck and knee surgeries, and an ailing back, sidelined him.

Today, Houk survives on about $1,200 a month in disability.

His two-bedroom, two-bath mobile was his sanctuary, well kept and cozy. He had lived in his singlewide trailer on East Seltice Way in the Hidden Hills mobile home park for 15 years.

The fire took it away.

"That was all he had," Ahlers said.

With little savings, Houk appreciates the help he has received. He hopes to recover and land in a low-income apartment, perhaps even own a home again.

But he and his sister both know that will be difficult.

"With no job and disability, there's not much option for this poor guy," she said.

St. Vincent's will help him find his way back, as will Red Cross. And his sister is there, too. A Jim Houk Relief Fund has been established at US Bank.

But equally important, says Jamie Hill, emergency services director for Red Cross, is that folks like Houk dig in on their own.

"We help the process along, but don't do all the work for them," she said.

Houk vows to do his part.

He loves North Idaho. This has been his home since he was 13 years old. The initial shock of what happened has passed. He has regained his calm and composure. The tears have dried. There are, he believes, better days ahead.

"I'm thankful for what everyone has done for me," he said.

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