Homeless in Portland: Choosing villages over shelter

Advocates say that homeless villages offer residents what shelters can't: a sense of safety and a chance to reconnect.

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PORTLAND, Ore.  —  Helping to build the homeless village where he lives has given Bob Brimmer’s life focus, he says.

More than that, living there has helped him heal from a tough childhood that included stays in homeless shelters in upstate New York.

“My dad died when I was in ninth grade from a drug-induced heart attack, and then my mom lived in Section 8 housing,” says Brimmer, 23, who has an associate’s degree in math and science.

Brimmer’s income would have “spiked” his mother’s rent if he’d stayed with her, since the cost of her federally subsidized apartment was based on her household’s ability to pay. Brimmer saw it as a reason to leave. He started “couch surfing” with friends, but they lost their apartments, so he used his last tax return to buy a three-day Greyhound ticket to Portland. He had no place to stay when he got here.

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.

Brimmer wears a trimmed, reddish beard and dreadlocks, which he pulls back in a ponytail. He favors jeans, or work pants with paint specks, a white T-shirt and boots. He anchors the leash of his black Labrador to a rope tied in a hangman’s noose around his waist.

“When I first came out here, I kind of fell into that trap of just getting drunk every night — I’ve got, like, six bucks; that’s two pretty powerful drinks, like Schlitz or Four Loko,” Brimmer says. “You drink two of those and you’re going to be pretty schwilly. But once you start relying on that, eventually the depressing effect kicks in.”

Enter Joe Bennie, a board member and former resident of Hazelnut Grove, a homeless village in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood that was founded in 2015 as a group of tents. Bennie, who has construction industry experience, taught Brimmer tricks of the trade while building the village, which has developed into a cluster of 16 or so tiny houses, with a bathhouse and a tiny library filled with several hundred books.

Brimmer lives in a bunkhouse at the north end, woven into the woods alongside North Greeley Avenue. The village’s spine is a rickety, raised plank walkway that residents jokingly call the “Raised Walkway of Death,” or “Captain Jack Sparrow’s Flight.” One disabled resident who is a veteran travels the precarious route in her electric wheelchair, a feat which is astonishing — and scary — to watch.

“If it weren’t for Hazelnut Grove,” Brimmer allows, “I am pretty sure I would have went the wino route of homelessness, to be honest.”

Keys to Healing

On June 19, officials announced that the number of men, women and children living in shelters and on the streets in Multnomah County jumped by nearly 10 percent over the past two years. In the face of this continuing crisis, one unconventional housing solution appears to be gaining followers, and even becoming a Rose City export  —  the homeless village.

Put simply, a homeless village is a group of houseless people living together and sharing self-governance, trash, water and toilet service, and a social support system. Portland is near the fore of the movement, led by the grassroots group the Village Coalition, and is home to what is probably the country’s oldest continuously sited homeless village, Dignity Village, founded in 2000.

Three others followed: Hazelnut Grove, Right 2 Dream Too, which recently moved from Old Town to a parking lot near the Moda Center, and Kenton Women’s Village, Portland’s newest and most mainstream version, which opened with public and neighborhood backing in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood on June 10.

Homeless villages don’t work miracles, supporters acknowledge, but they do give chronically homeless residents a secure place to sleep and keys to healing that shelters and transitional housing programs can’t always match.
While a homeless village can evolve from a tent camp, access to a locking door may be its most basic single element. For a homeless person who struggles just to find a safe, legal place to sleep, a locking door means possessions won’t get stolen if there’s an appointment. Sleep is possible without threat of physical or sexual assault.

Such security is a critical feature of Kenton Women’s Village’s 14 “sleeping pods,” designed by architectural firms, shepherded by Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design.

At Hazelnut Grove, the tents staked in 2015 are gone, and “everyone is living behind a locked door,” says Vahid Brown, Housing Policy Coordinator for Clackamas County and Village Coalition steering committee member.

In May, the Village Coalition discussed plans to help Right 2 Dream Too, which lets its “overnighters” sleep in a covered, outdoor common space, secure 22 new 8-by-8-foot sleeping pods. In June, 10 of the pods, built by Benson High School students, had been installed at the village’s new site.

A lockable door is not a rental contract, or a mortgage. But houseless people say it’s a huge step up from a sleeping bag, or a sidewalk.

Most dwelling units in Portland’s homeless villages are unsophisticated, made from plywood and other materials gifted by the ReBuilding Center and other donors. Still, they are much-loved, with personalized, artistic details. Some have small porches, shaded windows, small places to sit.

There are usually windows — each of the Kenton Women’s Village’s pods has windows that open — and sometimes a second floor, but a twin-size bed takes up most of the floor space. These aren’t the luxe-craft tiny homes seen on the HGTV series “Tiny House Hunters.”

This is about dignity, supporters say, as the founding village’s name suggests.

People Who Know You

Focus on the physical aspects, and you might miss the most important thing about homeless villages, Brown says: social infrastructure.

“There’s a secret sauce that the village movement is trying to get across,” Brown says. “This isn’t just about having a safe place to sleep and a door they can lock. It’s about the community that emerges within the village.”

Forty-six percent of homeless adults live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dignity Village resident Scott Layman is one of them. He says Dignity Village provides a support system that helps him live with schizophrenia and support others struggling with mental illness.

In May, a tiny-house-sized pile of charred plywood told a sad story near the north end of the community. Layman says the person who lived there left a candle unattended, defying a rule against open flames. The owner’s house was destroyed, and three adjacent houses damaged, before, before villagers and firefighters extinguished the blaze. Later, during a village council meeting, the resident laughed about the episode.

The council put the man, whom Layman believes might have untreated mental illness, on a 90-day leave from the village.

Layman recalls his own struggles with mental illness. Before he found Dignity, Layman was hearing voices, living in “zombie houses,” and camping in the woods. “The village gave me a place to land, to get me going in the right direction,” Layman says. “If I’d had to keep going I might not be with us right now.”

Layman tries to give back to others who suffer from mental illness. “I try to help as many of those as I can,” he said, his voice breaking, staring at the charred pile.

Top local officials, including Multnomah County Board Chair Deborah Kafoury, have taken note of the village’s peer support mechanisms.

“I think I have been more supportive of those organized villages as opposed to some of the camping that’s springing up,” Kafoury says. “Having some type of social contract, it’s amazing. They support each other. For a lot of people who are struggling to end their homelessness, with other issues they bring along, having a support system around you is crucial to your staying on track.”

Trauma is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless. Supporters say villages offer a community with whom isolated homeless people can reconnect.

“When you lose housing, a lot of your links to society are untethered,” Brown explains. “The alienation just accumulates day after day, as you’re treated and seen by the rest of the community as an outcast. Healing that rift requires more than just getting housing.”

Moving Forward

The Village Coalition, a grassroots group made up of village residents, formerly homeless individuals and their allies, thinks villages are part of the solution.

“Business as usual doesn’t meet the scale of the problem,” says Village Coalition steering committee chair David Bikman.

Kenton Women’s Village, which the Village Coalition was instrumental in planning, could become the feather in the movement’s cap. It is Portland’s first village developed as a partnership among activists, governments agencies, neighbors, architecture firms and a social service provider, Catholic Charities of Oregon.

It’s too soon to assess the success of this “pilot” project and whether it can be replicated. But its political support, physical beauty and comparatively low cost — $175,000 is budgeted for the next fiscal year — may give it broader appeal than Portland’s other three villages.

At a June 9 media event, there were plaudits. Catholic Charities Executive Director Richard Birkel said the Kenton Women’s Village “may very well be the most creative application of what we know” in helping to put homeless people on the path to permanent housing.

“There’s so much good that will live on and carry on into the future,” said Michael Cox, spokesman for Mayor Ted Wheeler.

As for the 14 women who were notified of their acceptance to the village, “Their reactions were crying, screaming, like ‘I feel like I won the lottery,’” said Catholic Charities Case Manager Bernadette Stetz.

Their enthusiasm is shared by others who know the struggles of living on the streets, people such as former Hazelnut Grove resident Jaison Kirk.

“Villages are part of remembering who we are as humans,” said Kirk.

Thacher Schmid is a freelance journalist. Read more at ThacherSchmid.com or Medium.com/@PoorforaMinute.

Published July 13, 2017


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