PORTLAND, Ore. -- Just to the south of the 31-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue in Kenton, a gentrifying working-class neighborhood in North Portland, more than 200 area residents streamed into Disjecta, a nonprofit art gallery, on March 8.
Everyone was given a small, square piece of paper — a ballot. Kenton residents were participating in a highly unusual decision-making process: a neighborhood-wide vote to decide the fate of a city-backed proposal to site a temporary homeless village in their neighborhood.
“The city is basically saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to let you vote on this.’ That just doesn’t happen. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Tyler Roppe, the Kenton Neighborhood Association’s chair and a supporter of the proposal, said that night.
Roppe had no idea how the vote would go.
Vahid Brown, Clackamas County’s housing policy coordinator and a co-founder of the grassroots group Village Coalition, which had played a leading role in crafting the proposal, hadn’t slept well for days. “I was on pins and needles,” he recalled.
Hopes were high among the village’s supporters. But like in other neighborhoods that have grappled with homelessness, some greeted the village proposal with hostility.
“Why Kenton?” one man, who did not give his name, asked at one point that night.
Without pause, a half-dozen people shot back, “Why not Kenton?”
Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly then stood to speak.
“I am hoping that Kenton will be the first neighborhood to step forward and embrace this incredible project and … be a role model for the rest of the city,” she said. “What you don’t want, probably, are the kinds of camps that spontaneously emerge due to the fact that no one will say ‘yes.’ ”
That night, Kenton did say yes, overwhelmingly, voting 178 to 75 in favor of Kenton Women’s Village, which opened two months later. In doing so, Kenton residents set a precedent for neighborhood involvement and raised hopes among homeless advocates and policymakers that the model can be replicated to site future villages in other neighborhoods.
But it wasn’t easy.
Looking for a test case
Despite significant increased funding since former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales declared a “housing and homelessness state of emergency” in 2015, housing and shelter options for homeless residents — a large portion of whom experience severe mental illness, physical disabilities and other obstacles to living-wage employment — lag far behind demand.
For homeless individuals and policymakers alike, homeless villages are viewed as one promising, if imperfect, alternative to camps. (See sidebar below.) Though the living conditions are primitive and quasi-legal, these communities are self-governed and rule-bound, beloved by village residents and met with increasingly open minds by policymakers.
As homeless villages gain wider visibility and acceptance, the movement faces obstacles as much political as philosophical: How do you persuade businesses, homeowners and apartment dwellers to accept a village within their neighborhood?
For the proponents of Kenton Women’s Village, putting the decision in the hands of Kenton residents was a risky gamble. If neighbors rejected the proposal, it would throw cold water on future village proposals.
As camping along Portland’s Springwater Creek Corridor swelled to record levels last summer, a group of activists made their move, forming the Village Coalition. It was composed of residents of Portland’s then-three homeless villages, advocates and allies, including the City Repair Project, the Rebuilding Center, Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design and the Portland Houseless Coalition.
The new coalition advocates for homeless villages and their residents, promulgating the view that villages are an inexpensive shelter alternative and a forward-thinking model for homeless self-empowerment: “an opportunity to have services for houseless people designed by houseless people,” says steering committee chairman David Bikman, an administrator at Portland State University’s Graduate School of Education.
The coalition’s vision, according to Bikman, is a city with a homeless village in every neighborhood.
The Village Coalition launched the Partners on Dwelling (POD) initiative in October. Led by Todd Ferry, an architect and associate professor at Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design, POD brought architects, designers and homeless advocates together to explore ways to create safe, beautiful small houses for homeless people. The POD team and a cadre of volunteers began building a set of 96-square-foot “sleeping pods” for a speculative homeless village.
In need of a site, Ferry approached then-Mayor Charlie Hales, who had identified homelessness as a priority for his last year in office.
“He was looking for a legacy of some kind, for sure,” recalls Elspeth Tanguay-Koo, the Village Coalition’s treasurer and steering committee member, who was homeless as a teenager. “He was aware of (other villages). It was enough information for him to understand that there was a high likelihood of success. I think he had nothing to lose.”
Hales’ office gave $35,000 toward the project.
“We always had (villages) in the back of our mind,” said Ben Mauro, who worked as a housing policy coordinator in Hales’ office, recalling discussions last summer about whether villages could be another form of shelter.
“It’s a broader definition of shelter,” said Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, noting that, like shelters, villages provide “basic safety, access to hygiene, shelter from inclement weather.”
“The sense of urgency that came along with the emergency opened up the possibility to try things we haven’t tried before,” Jolin added.
Jolin secured an agreement from Catholic Charities to operate a village, which would serve homeless women and provide case management during a one-year pilot project.
Mauro scoured through a list of vacant city-owned properties. He pinpointed an acre-sized residential lot on North Argyle Street, slightly secluded by Kenton Park. Owned by the Portland Development Commission (the city’s economic development agency, recently renamed Prosper Portland), the lot was pledged to an affordable housing development, but would remain vacant for at least a year.
The site was targeted as the future home of Kenton Women’s Village.
No support? No project.
When city staff first met with the Kenton Neighborhood Association in November to propose Kenton Women’s Village, they were met with concern and skepticism.
“The neighborhood felt like it was sprung on them,” Roppe said. “There was not enough information.”
Little detail was given regarding how the village would have electricity, water or sanitation, how the village’s residents would be chosen, or what recourse would exist if any issues arose, Roppe and others said.
Susan Oliver, who lived 12 blocks away from the proposed site, attended the meeting wanting to be supportive, but left unpersuaded. “I had no assurance there was going to be any active concern for the community,” Oliver said.
The city could have built the village without neighbors’ permission, but never considered that option.
“We didn’t want to (forge) a village that was unwelcome, that would be isolated in the neighborhood and be treated poorly,” Ferry said.
In a Dec. 22 letter to Hales, the association indicated cautious support of the proposal “tempered by myriad unanswered questions.” Recognizing a need to “build trust and remove fear,” as Vahid Brown said, the village’s proponents began working closer with the neighborhood association, developing a process unusual in two ways.
First, nearly a dozen meetings were scheduled to allow neighbors a chance to voice their opinion. A neighborhood association subcommittee met five times between December and March, an aggressive meeting schedule even in a city obsessed with meetings and process.
Second, the partners agreed that the neighborhood association would have final say on the village. A neighborhood-wide vote was scheduled for March 8.
“We were clear from the beginning,” Jolin said. “If you don’t support it, it's not going forward.”
The neighborhood association spread news of the vote in its monthly newsletter hand-delivered to every Kenton home, social media, the association’s website and emails.
In addition to the subcommittee meetings, neighbors also participated in two architectural charrettes, hosted by POD members and PSU architectural students. Charrettes, common in the architecture community, allow all stakeholders to discuss a project together, proposing various ideas and resolving any conflicts.
The first charrette, on Jan. 28, began with a walking tour of the Argyle site. The group noted the lot’s physical characteristics and the neighborhood surroundings. They discussed safety issues and how the village could be supplied with water and electricity. At nearby Kenton Firehouse, they sat at round tables, examining scale models of the sleeping pods, and playing with different ideas.
What would the village be like if all the pods were clustered together in one group versus smaller clusters throughout the lot? How would either design affect the villagers’ relationships with one another?
Residents drew their ideas on copies of the site map, sketching in where a community garden might grow, where a grassy berm could be situated to divide private and community space, where a staircase from the top of the hill at North Argyle into the village could be constructed.
“We drew a lot of pictures,” Tanguay-Koo said. “We generated a lot of questions, a lot of observation. We all shared different ideas.”
PSU architecture students incorporated neighbors’ ideas into the village design, presented at a second charrette on Feb. 15.
The intensive involvement process helped neighbors overcome their “fear of the unknown,” Mauro said. “When you break it down and say that these are 14 women who are coming off the street and escaping a tormenter, or just looking for a safe place in the community to grow in — it's hard to argue against that.”
The process made a difference for resident Val Parks.
“I was totally opposed to it at first,” Parks said. “As I've learned more and seen the dedication behind making this work, it has brought me around and made me more open to it.”
By the time of the vote, the mood among neighbors was “positive and celebratory,” Tanguay-Koo said.
Still, at the March 8 meeting, there were detractors. Residents shouted questions about how the location was chosen, how trash would be cleaned up, and if the residents could be evicted. Most of all, they wanted assurance that the village would not become permanent.
Larry Mills, who said that he has lived in Kenton for 37 years, read from a letter he wrote before the meeting. “The current condition of our neighborhood and Portland is embarrassing,” he said. He called Hazelnut Grove, a nearby unsanctioned homeless village, a “shantytown” and described the homeless camps throughout Kenton “a disaster.”
Jessie Burke, owner of Posies Bakery & Cafe and a 15-year resident of Kenton, urged her neighbors to support the village and its organizers.
“Give them a few tries to figure out a really tough problem. Government doesn’t work without citizen participation,” Burke said.
Burke’s argument prevailed, and the Kenton Women’s Village opened to residents on June 10.
Among some, Eudaly included, there are hopes that the village will serve as a blueprint for opening similar villages in other neighborhoods.
“We are going to begin to facilitate these types of conversations across the whole city,” Eudaly said during the vote. “No neighborhood is going to be exempt. This is a problem for all of us to solve.”
Other neighborhood associations and churches throughout Portland already have approached the Village Coalition, Brown said.
“It was such a positive process,” Brown said, adding that the experience in Kenton sends a message to other neighborhoods that “if you step forward as a community, then you are in the driver’s seat.”
A Change of Heart
Sheila Mason is one of Kenton Women’s Villages biggest proponents. But she started out as one of its biggest detractors.
Mason, who has lived in the Kenton neighborhood for 10 years, arrived at a neighborhood meeting in January with a list of tough questions for members of a village-planning subcommittee. An engineer at Intel, Mason describes herself as left-brained and analytical, naturally drawn to understanding the world through data, statistics and facts. She wanted to know how the village would deal with trash, what safety precautions were being taken for the women, and how criminal activity would be dealt with.
But listening to herself as she spoke, she realized she was judging Kenton Women’s Village despite knowing little about the project.
“Listening to my own voice asking my questions…I actually could hear my bias coming through,” she said.
The election of Donald Trump rattled Mason; she cites national politics as a major reason for getting involved with Kenton Women’s Village. She remembers feeling helpless after the inauguration, wanting to “root down and work on something that I can control.”
“Something I can control is what kind of neighbor I am to my fellow neighbors,” she says.
That made her think: what does it mean to be a good neighbor?
Living in a house doesn’t necessarily make a person a good neighbor, she realized: housed people may leave trash in the street, hoard car parts in their yards, or deal drugs from their homes. Living in a house doesn’t make a person immune to problems, such as addiction and mental illness, that many homeless people face.
So, maybe the lack of a house didn’t mean trouble.
Mason made a conscious effort to think about the Kenton Women’s Village proposal from a different perspective. She still wanted to know the facts and data about homeless villages. How does a village’s self-governance model work, she wondered, without becoming “a big, dramatic mess?”
She attended one of Hazelnut Grove’s General Assembly Meetings, held in the village’s dining area. Village residents are required to attend the weekly meeting, when chores and other duties such as kitchen and security detail are decided upon.
“They have a humongous investment in where they live,” Mason said. “They have it all worked out. Everybody has to pull an equal load.”
She also became more confident of the proposed village’s likelihood of success when she learned that Catholic Charities, which acts as a property manager for hundreds of units across Portland, would manage Kenton Women’s Village.
Property managers know how to deal with trash, sanitation and other issues, Mason said. “That’s huge.”
Then there’s the statistic that Mason says leveled her.
Earlier this year, Home Forward, the Portland metropolitan area’s federal housing authority, opened its waiting list for Section 8 housing, federally subsidized housing that caps a person’s rent contribution at 30 percent of their income.
Over five days, 16,000 households applied before Home Forward closed the list again.
“I thought, wow,” Mason said. “This is how serious this is. That started changing my mind. I didn’t fully understand the scope of how homelessness (was increasing) due to rent rising.”
Mason encouraged her neighbors to approve Kenton Women’s Village at a neighborhood-wide vote held in March, making the point that many of the women selected to live in the village were “already here.”
“They are our neighbors,” Mason said.
This story is part of Giving Ground, an investigative series 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.