PORT TOWNSEND — Hans Oscar Heil hasn’t always been the straight-laced-looking guy people see around town. His is a story of cross-country wandering, of working in the woods and, at last, of finding home.
Years ago, Heil survived a fearsome accident only to find himself with nowhere to live. He went looking for help, and the Olympic Community Action Programs, aka OlyCAP, and the Peninsula Home Fund were there at the end of the road.
They have helped him find — and stay — in his right place.
Established 31 years ago with contributions from people across the North Olympic Peninsula, the Home Fund provides small amounts of assistance to help prevent people such as Heil from losing their housing, their mobility and their health.
Born in Germany 70 years ago, Heil came to the United States as a toddler. He first landed in Syracuse, N.Y., then went to California, where his father had a house in the Los Angeles area. He chafed at city life, though, and hitchhiked north to participate in beach cleanups outside San Francisco.
“I became a hippie,” Heil recalled. Traveling from the Haight-Ashbury to Humboldt County, he was at times homeless and hungry. On California’s northernmost coast, he found shelter in a commune — and then a job that worked for him.
It was with the U.S. Forest Service on the West End of the Olympic Peninsula.
“I loved being outdoors,” Heil said.
He worked as a firefighter and fire lookout until the day of the accident. A chunk of wood came out of nowhere — he has no memory of how — and struck him, fracturing his scapula and puncturing one of his lungs.
Heil does remember waiting for the U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter and sensing the end of his forestry career. He went on disability benefits, moved to Oregon at the invitation of a friend, and lived in a cabin deep in the woods. Isolated there, he was desperately lonely.
With his meager income, Heil didn’t see many choices. He did have family in the Port Townsend area, so he decided to come north again to see if he could make a new start.
OlyCAP soon came to his aid, helping him find a subsidized apartment. He’s had his place for a decade now.
“I took to this place like a fish to water,” he said.
Heil began volunteering at the Port Townsend Visitor Information Center, avidly reading the two local newspapers and going for hikes in his beloved woods. He soaks up the Peninsula’s blend of city amenities and wild beauty; one favorite place is the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, where his birding trips were highlights of the past year.
Over the past year the Peninsula Home Fund has helped Heil with a $250 voucher for car repair, said Leah Russell, housing coordinator at OlyCAP. Then Heil had the misfortune of losing his dentures. The Home Fund, which grants a maximum of $350 per 12-month period, provided $100 toward new ones. Enter OlyCAP’s partner, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Jefferson County, with a little more help, and he was all set again.
Heil takes none of this for granted. Heil would like to volunteer with OlyCAP, particularly to help people like him who’ve been homeless.
“I want to give back,” he said.
“Hans is a very kind and giving person,” said Russell, adding that he’s always ready to help his neighbors in his apartment complex.
Another thing Heil wants to do in 2020: improve his health. He’s smoked, though not heavily, for more than 50 years. It’s time to quit, he said.
To apply for a Peninsula Home Fund grant, contact one of the three OlyCAP offices:
• OlyCAP’s Port Angeles office is at 228 W. First St., Suite J (Armory Square Mall); 360-452-4726. For Port Angeles- and Sequim-area residents.
• Its Port Townsend office is at 823 Commerce Loop; 360-385-2571. For Jefferson County residents.
• The Forks office is at 421 Fifth Ave.; 360-374-6193. For West End residents.
Leave a message in the voice mailbox at any of the three numbers, and a Home Fund caseworker will phone you back.
To donate online using a credit card, go to www.olycap.org/peninsula-home-fund.
All contributions are IRS tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law for the year in which the check is written.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.