'I feel really safe': A look at life inside the Kenton Women's Village

A month after the Kenton Women's Village opened, residents are sharing their stories and talking about life in the innovative camp. 

A look at life in the Kenton Women's village None

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PORTLAND, Ore. -- They asked for one month.

For one month, said camp managers, the women living in the 14 individually assigned pods at the Kenton Women’s Village wanted no cameras, no interviews and few uninvited guests.

In short, they needed 30 days to settle in.

“A lot of people have been through a lot of trauma on the streets, domestic violence, assault,” said Savanah Walseth, the village manager. “They just needed to be in a safe space with each other to build community, to build relationships between each other, to get to know the people that they’re living next to and figure out what this is.”

Walseth, who works for Catholic Charities, says by and large, the community honored that 30-day request.

Now, they know other agencies are watching the village, wondering if it could be a template for similar, pod-based camps in the Portland area.

Clackamas County is currently considering building one for homeless veterans.

With that in mind, one resident Thursday offered to tell her story and open up about life in the camp.

Twenty-two-year-old Makhayla Kendrick spent her childhood in foster care, before her biological father regained custody of her when she was 16.

Within months, they both became homeless.

“He was struggling a lot to afford a house for two people after getting custody, because he didn’t make a lot of money,” she said.

Kendrick couch-surfed and stayed with friends. She dropped out of Franklin High School to start working.

A couple of years ago, she found herself in an abusive relationship.

Then she met her wife.

“I guess over the course of two years, we slowly fell in love,” she said. “She was the only person who was actually nice to me and cared about me.”

The two got married, said Kendrick, and moved into an apartment in Portland.

She said things were going well, for a while.

“We were in our apartment for like six months, before our landlord asked us one day if we were sisters,” she said. “When I told him we weren’t, he got really like weird, and the neighbors started harassing us… there were so many police reports.”

Kendrick said after a few months, the situation worsened.

“He would get on the phone and would be like ‘Oh, it’s the lesbians.’ Like, that’s how against it he was. And so, we ended up losing our jobs in the process because it was really stressful dealing with everybody harassing us, and we already had mental health issues… and so we ended up becoming homeless a little over two years ago.”

Staying together was tough, she said. A lot of shelters wouldn’t take couples.

So Kendrick and her wife traveled to Sandy and camped in the Mount Hood National Forest.

They lived there for eight months, often relying on stream and river water for bathing and drinking.

“We’re going through a lot of testing right now to make sure we don’t have parasites or anything,” she said. “Drinking that kind of water is not very healthy.”

Eventually, the two came back to Portland and lived in a tent.

Like most women living on the streets, violence became a recurring theme.

“I mean the most severe I guess was a few months ago down off the Columbia Slough,” said Kendrick. “This guy heard us arguing and got mad and took my tablet and started threatening to throw it in the water. And so I started like trying to get it back from him, and he proceeded to pick me up off the ground and slam me repeatedly into the ground, and I’m like this tiny girl so all I could do was curl up and try to protect myself.”

It lead to one of several emergency room visits.

“I ended up at the hospital with severe, multiple contusions down my whole body,” she said.

Kendrick said the routine showed no sign of changing, until late last year when she saw a friend’s post on Facebook.

The friend worked with the Village Coalition, and he wrote about brewing plans to organize a tiny house village for homeless women in Portland.

“I messaged him and I was like, 'You need to get me in contact with whoever’s doing this. We need to be there,’” she recalled.

The friend put Kendrick and her wife in touch with staff at Catholic Charities, the nonprofit tapped by the city to run the yearlong pilot project.

The women were each interviewed twice, separately.

They were also required to attend an informational meeting at Hazelnut Grove, a city-sanctioned camp near North Interstate and Greeley avenues. 

Initially, Kendrick was told she was too young. Staff were looking for women over the age of 25.

She wrote a letter, appealing the decision, and won.

Her pod is gray, with a red door.

She lives there with her therapy dog Dexter. Her wife, who did not wish to be interviewed, lives next door.

Kendrick said staff originally offered to let the couple live together, but they decided living as relative newlyweds in such cramped quarters could be a source of conflict.

“We thought having a separate space to go to, to kind of have the space, is important,” she said. “And since we don’t have a house that I could be like ‘Go to the living room!’ I can at least be like, ‘Go to your pod!’”

Kendrick said since moving in, conflict in the camp overall has been minimal.

It’s surrounded by a tall, chain-link fence with locked gates. Guests are only allowed in between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

For those escaping abusive relationships or violence of any kind, they have a “ban list” with the names of prohibited guests.

Police haven’t had to respond to the site, Kendrick and Walseth said. KGW reached out to the Portland Police Bureau to confirm but hasn’t yet heard back.

Two of the original 14 women who moved in have moved out.

One was asked to leave. The other left voluntarily, said Walseth, the village manager.

“It’s not a community for everyone,” she said.

She added the more mundane elements of life at the village are settling down, too.

Two pods serve as a kitchen and bathroom, with two shower stalls inside it.

Most residents have potted plants or small gardens on their porches.

Walseth said in all, 30 days in, the yearlong pilot project appears to be a success.

“I think some of it is just the fact that someone has a door and a key and can lock themselves inside if they need to. They can put their belongings somewhere where they can feel safe so they can walk outside and get a job,” she said. “They can work on the garden together and build relationships that aren’t normally seen in any type of shelter or that kind of thing… It’s something that’s very different.”

Kendrick added a lot of the neighbors have stopped by to donate clothes and other items. The group is planning a barbeque soon, to meet more of the neighbors.

“I think that it works really well,” said Kendrick. “I feel really safe here and I hope our neighbors enjoy having us here. It’s really important to us, being here.”

She said she’s aware of future projects that may be modeled off the village.

In Kendrick’s mind, they can’t be built fast enough.

“People are always telling homeless people, 'Well, go get a job and do this!’" She said, "It’s like it’s really hard to expect people to do that with no place to sleep every night or worry that their stuff is going to be stolen or they can’t shower and be clean. I think it would be really good if other neighborhoods would do it and help people and not just women.”

Published July 20, 2017

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