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.