Homeless villages aren’t monolithic. In fact, Portland alone has four distinct models.
Dignity Village (53 residents/established 2000) is a 501(c)3 registered nonprofit organization with a city contract that includes rent-free space.
Right 2 Dream Too (75 residents/2011) is described by board members as a “rest area.” The encampment provides a covered outdoor space for “overnighters” to rest in any time of day or night. Launched without government approval, it is relocating with the help of the city.
“R2DToo is not so much a village as it is an intentional social service agency run by saints,” says architect and village designer Mark Lakeman. “You’ve got people not being paid whose life mission is to take care of other vulnerable people.”
Hazelnut Grove (20 residents/2015) has improved its physical infrastructure while overcoming what Lakeman called “hostility” from the neighborhood and indifference from city officials. It now features a tiny new library and a bunkhouse that appears to borrow a page from Right 2 Dream Too’s common area.
Kenton Women’s Village (14 residents/2017) opened with the blessing of the city and the neighborhood and is the only village that does background checks on its residents. It’s also the only village operated in close coordination with an established social services agency, with five case managers and other paid staff.
But the four villages share many things in common, including what David Bikman, steering committee chair of village advocacy group the Village Coalition calls a “small is beautiful” approach.
Bikman contrasts villages with the widely-considered proposal for a mega-shelter put forth last year by developer Homer Williams. Ultimately rejected, the service-enhanced shelter at Terminal 1 in NW Portland could have held 1,500.
“It turns out small is beautiful, and small works,” Bikman says. “It’s not always necessary to have a multi-million-dollar approach, or a program that tries to solve all of the problems all at once.”
What does a village need? Vahid Brown, housing policy coordinator for Clackamas County and Village Coalition steering committee member, says its components are a governance structure, basic personal hygiene facilities and maintenance and garbage service.
Individual living quarters in all four villages typically have no running water and no wired electricity. All have common bathrooms or portable toilets, shared water reserves for drinking and kitchen areas. A few have heat, but many don’t. Some, like Kenton’s, use “passive design” principles and body heat to stay cozy in cold weather.
Water is frequently an issue for the four un-plumbed villages. Ironically enough, that includes Hazelnut Grove, which sits above an aquifer and water mains. Residents bring in water in five-gallon jugs, Brown says, and take solar-heated showers.
All of Portland’s villages are inclusive places where couples, people with animals, people who identify as gay or transgender, and people with disabilities live. (A 2010 report indicated, however, that Dignity Village was highly disproportionately white compared to Portland’s homeless population.) Margi Dechenne, the housing transitions program manager for Catholic Charities, says four of the Kenton village’s 14 women are women of color: one is black, three Native American.
With R2DToo’s early June move, three of four local homeless villages are in North Portland, with Dignity Village in industrial Northeast.
Will Southeast, Southwest or East Portland be next? Village Coalition representatives say the group is talking to leaders of the faith community, and may soon announce new partnerships in other areas of town.
DID YOU KNOW?
All four of Portland’s homeless villages have in common is assistance from volunteers, architects, designers, schools, businesses and nonprofits. Chief among them are:
• The ReBuilding Center, which has donated materials
• Benson High School and Catlin Gabel School
• Sisters of the Road, Street Roots and New Seasons, which have contributed guidance and food to R2DToo
• Tivnu, a Jewish service organization that’s helped to build structures at Hazelnut Grove
• Fourteen area architecture firms that participated in Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design’s “POD Initiative” to design and build tiny houses for Kenton Women’s Village
This story is part of Giving Ground, an investigative series exploring the rise of the homeless village movement. It is produced by the Open: Housing Journalism Collaborative, a joint project of Open: Housing, Pamplin Media Group and KGW. Look for other stories in this and related series at OpenHousing.net.