Howard Henry fixes things.
Since Nov. 15, 1998, he has fixed automobiles at Howard Tire & Auto on Cameron Street in Harrisburg, the business he built from the ground up. Nearly 30 years ago, he pulled himself out of homelessness and addiction. At the age of 9, he mowed lawns in his trailer park for cash after his father left for Vietnam.
But he can’t fix this.
On May 5, a wall holding up the parking lot for The McFarland apartments collapsed. Gravel, asphalt and a silver Nissan Altima came plummeting onto the roof of his warehouse. Nevertheless, he kept his main garage operating. Then, in June, after a heavy spring rain, the mass of debris crashed further into the warehouse. The Altima slid down another two feet into piles of bricks. The red fence that circled the parking lot pushed up against what was left of the ceiling, now in shreds.
Two days later, Harrisburg condemned his warehouse and eight apartments in The McFarland. Still, Henry slogged on until mid-October, when an engineer he hired said his property was no longer safe to inhabit. He was forced to close up shop and let his employees go.
Eight months after the initial landslide, the damage continues to lay open and exposed to the elements. Whenever rain falls, washing out more dirt and debris, he worries, and he is now concerned about winter’s freeze and thaw.
To make matters worse—no stakeholders want to take responsibility for the million-dollar damage.
Owners of The McFarland have distanced themselves from the cleanup. Owner Isaac Dohany appealed the city’s condemnation order. During the appeal—a code hearing to determine if the order was given properly—attorney Adam Klein attempted to place blame on PennDOT.
However, PennDOT’s internal investigation found that its contractor’s work to the adjacent Mulberry Bridge did not contribute to the collapse.
“For us, it’s not about assignment of blame,” Henry said. “We have always felt like, if we can get people to the table and begin to talk about the challenges that the community as a whole faces as a result of that hill, then blame and money would be put aside for safety concerns.”
He rallied staffers from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, as well as Rep. Scott Perry. He’s been in communication with the mayor’s office. Engineers, lobbyists and lawyers have come out of the woodwork to help him.
Meanwhile, he’s returned his inventory of new tires to the manufacturer. Most of his 15 former employees have found new jobs. Photos of grand openings and family still hang on the yellow paneled walls. Whenever he visits the shop, he makes sure to give the fish in the waiting room’s tank extra food.
“I am minimizing and reducing costs at every turn, but I’m staying,” he said. “I’m staying in an empty store, but me and the fish are staying.”
Holding onto Hope
Henry says he cannot afford to move into a new space. After eight months of financial strain, his company did not even have the funds to throw an annual anniversary dinner, which was planned for Nov. 15.
“While we are not broke, we are at the threshold of prudent reserve,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Henry has seen financial strife. In 1998, before he opened the shop, he slept on a mattress in a warehouse while going through a divorce. He’s come full circle, he said.
“I just feel like, if God did this,” he said, waving his arm to indicate the auto shop, “with the last 20 years of my life, He must have something really huge in store.”
Then he added, “It must be enormous.”
Henry’s faith guides him through trying times. About 28 years ago, he fought an addiction to alcohol. After burning every bridge and attending rehab four or five times, he resorted to living in a box behind a Dillsburg grocery store.
On Oct. 22, 1989, he pulled himself to sobriety.
The weight of the debris destroying his business has challenged his fortitude. On Sept. 13, he had alcohol for the first time since 1989. He drank a few swallows of beer in an attempt to cope with the weight of the damage laying on his warehouse.
“I just wanted to stop the pain,” he said. “The pain I feel is not for me. It’s for my employees. It’s for my family. It’s for all those who looked at me and asked me to fix this, and I can’t.”
Immediately, he regretted those sips. He threw the beer away. That’s when he knew he hit a spiritual low.
This experience has challenged him beyond his imagination, but he has emerged victorious, he said.
“I believe, maybe for the first time, in my gut in a way that I’ve never experienced, that nothing—absolutely nothing—in this life can happen to me, and I would be left alone,” he said. “I’ve come to a point of peace with all that.”
Hearts that Wrench
Two days before he officially closed his doors, Henry received an important letter in the mail. It was notification that his personal ministry had become an official nonprofit, which he calls Heart Wrenched.
It all started back in 1998 when a single mom driving a beat-up car with three babies in the backseat pulled into his new shop. Henry and his original business partner, Troy Hughes, decided they needed to act. They fixed her car for free then cobbled together an A-frame sign out of coroplast. They spelled “we fix flats free” in duct tape.
For the next 18 years, Henry continued serving the less fortunate, quietly given away more than 500 cars, thousands of tires and countless hours of service. He has only met a few of the people who have received his good will. He stayed purposefully busy when someone came to the shop for free services, he said.
“I didn’t want them to thank me for it, but I wanted them to thank God,” he said.
Henry now is executive director, chairman of the board of four members and nearly every other position of Heart Wrenched. He has the business model, marketing materials and even the corporate bank account.
It’ll work like this: Local nonprofits and ministries will identify a person in need. Then they will connect that person with Heart Wrenched, which will provide the parts.
“We will recruit garages just like myself who have the heart to fix something for someone who cannot afford it,” he said.
That’s right—Henry believes, one day, he’ll reopen his shop, despite the fact that engineers have warned him that the condemned section of The McFarland could collapse, which would be an even bigger disaster. Still, he holds out hope that the owners eventually will take responsibility and start cleaning up.
When talking about his life, Henry points to all the things he’s already endured and overcome—homelessness, divorce, alcoholism—which leaves him with the resolve to remain optimistic despite the mountain of dirt and debris that crashed into his roof, destroying his building and his business.
“I’m excited about the possibilities of what God’s about to do in my life,” he said. “I can’t wait. I just can’t wait.”
Author: Danielle Roth