Anne Stanton 3/16/09
Nine years ago, Thomas Humphreys luck began to turn south.
First, a relative was sexually assaulted twice by a star football player from a wealthy Traverse City family. The teen was convicted, but received less than a year of jail time.
Humphrey, a roofer in the area for decades, said the assault sent him into a downward spiritual spiral. He lost faith in the judicial system and became despondent.
Then he took on a substantial mortgage -- which he was unable to pay -- and had to foreclose on his home. He declared bankruptcy and was living on the edge when a traumatic head injury clinched his place among the homeless in Traverse City.
You look around at how pretty this place is and what a nice town it is. People like me are in between all those pretty scenes, he said.
Humphrey, 48, is no longer homeless. Today he feels strong enough to talk about his ongoing journey from the economic dregs of the city. He is a tall, lanky man with craggy features and reddish hair; he has a rich baritone voice, but often draws a blank when trying to remember something. I used to be young, but now Im ancient, he said, laughing.
Humphrey said he has regained his dignity and self respect, but hell never get his memory back. (The dates and details of this article are largely based on the daily journal of his dad, Wade Humphrey.) But at least he has an advocate in Marley Navin, who has also lost her life savings due to the effects of multiple sclerosis.
Navin has never been homeless. In fact, shes helped the homeless through the Safe Harbor program, and wonders how people can horde their wealth while others suffer.
She and Humphrey and a group of artists have formed a loose-knit cooperative that periodically sells their wares down at the former Rail Road Depot complex on Woodmere Street in Traverse City under a banner, The Art Station, a sign handcrafted by Humphrey.
She and Humphrey tell a compelling story of reaching bottom and then pulling themselves back up with art, the generosity of others, and the love they have for each other.
After the assault of his relative, Humphrey became depressed and work slowed down. By the spring of 2003, he had no savings and was behind on his truck payments and taxes. He lived on 5 1/2 acres on River Road in a trailer and thought he could consolidate his debt by borrowing on the equity of his land for which he owed only $8,800.
He talked to Dan Giroux of Crest Financial and Bill Clous of Eastwood Construction, for whom he had done roofing work. He was told his property was worth $50,000 to $60,000, and with the help of a lender (who is now out of business), and Humphreys sweat equity, Eastwood Custom Homes could build him a house he could afford.
But Humphrey said he had bad credit. No problem. The lender could use his parents credit and income record and mortgage the house in their name. Rose and Wade Humphrey were retired on a fixed income with two grandchildren to care for, but reluctantly agreed to sign off on a loan.
Ultimately, the deal ended in a stormy three-hour closing, with bad feelings all around.
Thereafter, Humphrey lost his roofing work with Clous. He was unable to pay the $177,000 mortgage and was forced to sell the house and declare bankruptcy a year later, even losing his truck, which was repossessed.
After Humphrey lost the house, he temporarily moved to Florida to help rebuild homes after a hurricane. He found a job and lived in a tent in the back of a 7-Eleven. When the company he worked for dissolved, he moved back to Traverse City and took a job in the spring of 2005 on a dynamite crew with Great Lakes Geophysical, an oil exploration company.
He and three others traveled to different sites, including federal land, looking for oil. Humphrey lived out of his van in between jobs.
One night, after a hard day spent working in West Virginia, the crew went to a restaurant and bar and met some women. One young woman went back to the motel with three of the men on the crew.
At two in the morning, I heard her screaming rape. I knocked on the door and said there were some apologies required. Arguing went back and forth, and I got sucker-punched by one of the crew, a 260-pound guy whod spent a lot of time in prison.
Humphrey was hospitalized for four days.
We saw the hospital papers and there was a lot of damage done to Humphrey, Rose said. The right eye was knocked almost completely out of the socket. Ribs broken, something that happened in the jaw.
The company lost its contract because of the incident, Humphrey said.
I was told it was after hours and dont even come looking for workers comp, Humphrey said. This is what I get for being a nice guy.
LIVING IN A VAN
Humphrey thought hed heal up and get on with life. That winter, when he returned to Traverse City, he had no home and no money. His buddy said he could park his van at his business, Sweetwater Drilling, and plug a small portable heater for the van into an outdoor outlet.
At this time, I was low. I was eating four times a week wherever I could eat, whatever money I had. The only thing I kept was my gym membership at the Grand Traverse Resort, which is handy to take a shower. Really warms you up after a night in the van, and it costs less than a shower at the gas station.
He took a bus to visit his parents in January, and they were shocked at his appearance.
He had lost 20 pounds. His stomach was distended. He wasnt sleeping and couldnt keep anything down. He was living on lots of water and milk. I knew something was very wrong, Rose said.
His cousin, Steve, offered him work on a roofing job, but it ended with Humphrey collapsing from a petite mal seizure.
Rose took her son to the doctor, who diagnosed him with profound memory loss and considerable brain damage. He recommended that Humphrey get on disability because hed never be able to work a steady job again.
Humphrey said he applied for permanent disability, but was denied. He wasnt able to navigate the paperwork or office visits. He couldnt remember the dates or where hed place a piece of paper.
His parents, who were stretched, themselves for money, sent him what they could for food. Humphrey was nearly starving in March when he heard of a porch roofing job for $100. He arrived at the job cold and hungry. He walked to the top of the ladder with a bundle of shingles and fellhis one foot slamming into his ankle and nearly breaking it.
I just laid there at the bottom in pain and cried for awhile. Then I tried to hop up the ladder. I carried up 15 bundles of shingles and nailed them down. So I could eat again. It was the only way to get a hundred bucks. Because thats what life is like. You do what you have to do.
After that, Humphrey went down to the Father Fred Foundation and was able to get a $160 monthly voucher for food within 10 minutes. It doesnt cover paper products or anything like that, but you can live on $160 a month for food.
Later that spring, he woke up from his van and went to a 7-eleven to get some coffee.
I love those people at 7-eleven on 14th Street. But the next thing you know the cops are saying, Come with us. Id been standing there for 20 minutes drooling. I didnt fall over. I just stood there.
That was a warm-up to a gran mal seizure in July. The medical staff couldnt believe Humphrey survived the seizure, which lasted two-and-a-half days. He woke up thinking he was a five-year-old riding a bike on a cracked sidewalk. When he was fully conscious, he realized he was a middle-aged man without a long-term memory.
HIT A BICYCLIST
Humphrey received medication for his seizures, and hoped it would prevent future problems. The doctor ordered him not to drive, but he did anyway. Throughout all this time, I cant get a government dime except for Medicaid. So what do you do? Do you lay in a gutter and die? I went to work.
But the decision cost him. He was driving down River Road and woke up driving 40 miles per hour. He thought hed hit something and parked the van. He vowed to never drive again. A week and a half later, six deputies drove up to arrest him for hitting a little boy on a bike, who required 16 stitches in his head. Humphrey said he told deputies that he had suffered a seizure. The deputies tore up his van trying to find evidence of drugs, finding none.
Humphrey estimates that his trial lasted three minutes, and his public defender appeared to never have looked at the file. Humphrey believes the judge assumed he was driving drunk and ordered a six-month jail sentence, a $1,000 fine, and required him to attend meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous.
And thats where he met Marley Navin.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Humphrey only spent a month in jail, opting to serve out the rest of his sentence in whats called a T-house or a transition house. These homes are sprinkled throughout Traverse City and Grand Traverse County. Humphrey shared a single one-bathroom house with up to a dozen other men, with four or five on bunks in a room.
During a move to one T-house, he found a box of copper scraps he had collected on his roofing jobs and forgot about. To while away the time, he started making golden spiral outdoor mobiles. Unbeknownst to him, his roofing cousin, Steve, started playing with copper scraps, too. He made a Petoskey stone with copper rays to make a flower and sold it for $150. He said, Now my wife is going to have to respect me. Im an artist!
Humphreys work became more elaborate as he expanded his work to collages, signs, and ornaments. A friend joked with him that he had joined the ranks of the starving artists, only he starved first and then became an artist.
To escape the cramped quarters of the T-house, hed ride his bike and attend one AA meeting after another.
He met Navin one July evening last year outside of the AA town hall, and they couldnt stop talking. She had her own troubles. A former occupational therapist, she had lost her job after working 25 years with the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. She felt that the symptoms from multiple sclerosis and family pressures led to a decline in her ability to multi-task. She recently lost another job with Michigan Home Health Care and now lives on a third of her income.
She, too, turned to art for solace with a group of several other women. They made yarn dye from ferns and wildflowers and knit meditation rugs, wall hangings, and purses. She was impressed when Humphrey told her he had been accepted into an upcoming art show in Elk Rapids. But on the night before the show, Humphrey had a gran mal seizure. She had only known him for a week.
All of a sudden, he looks way to one side, stares into space and starts waving his whole arm. He was on the couch. Hes thrashing for four to five minutes. I thought, I hardly know him. What am I going to do?
DESPERATE FOR DOLLARS
Navin took him to the emergency room, but he was determined to get out of there. He said, We are going to the art fair. Well, his levels were back up, and he was desperate for dollars. So we set up in Elk Rapids, as if wed always done this. And all of a sudden, he got things into the gallery, hes connecting with people, and it started evolving from there.
Navin, Humphrey and his cousin Steve began selling their art outside as part of the City Market every Saturday, and eventually held two indoor shows before Christmas. They held another event, Hearts for the Arts, in February with a group of about a dozen artists.
For me it was huge, Humphrey said. Now Im not a dude hitching down the road, pulling a trinket and selling it for ten bucks. Im an artist!
Meanwhile, Humphrey has kept taking odd jobs and Navin has formed a business to help the elderly. She also hopes to find work as a hospice clownI met the real life Patch Adams, and I was inspired, she said.
All this experience has given them some perspective on what this town could do better to help the homeless. With the Safe Harbor program, area churches now take turns providing overnight shelter for the homeless, giving them mats to lie on and a hearty meal to eat. But that requires the homeless move to a new place each week; it would be great if they could have just one place, Navin said.
But what about the Goodwill Inn?
Goodwill Inn cant do it all, and theyre so far out of town and always maxed out. Why cant we have a men and womens shelter in town?
NO LONGER HOMELESS
It would also be nice to give the homeless a warm place with a computer and phone during the day to help the homeless find jobs. And people like Humphrey need someone to advocate for them to obtain disability.
Its outrageous this man isnt on disability right now, Navin said.
The other drawback is that medical help seems to be a patchwork effort. We need someone or some agency to help coordinate all the services for the homeless, she said.
Humphrey is no longer homeless. He lives with Navin, who hopes to help Humphrey sort out the maze of paperwork for permanent disability. And Humphrey helps Navin get a more frugal mindset and live within a budget. Ive learned you can live pretty comfortably with hardly anything, he said.
Humphrey now something considers himself the luckiest ex-homeless guy in the world.
Since Ive been in the bottom, Ive got kicked and walked on a lot. People think youre dirt when youre homeless; they make judgments and they dont even know your story. Ive got an extraordinary amount of sympathy for everyone around here.
He also has tremendous gratitude for every person who has helped the homeless by giving money, food, or a free ride. Humphrey said he doesnt believe in God, but his life has gained meaning from this experience.
Quite honestly, I believe in love. If theres anything divine in this world, it would be that. Compassion and love.
Editors note: To reach Thomas Humphrey for work, his art, or both, call