PORTLAND, Ore. -- On a sunny, frigid Wednesday in the middle of an intentionally sparse gravel lot in North Portland, one of fourteen 8-by-12-foot tiny homes sat with its glass door wide open.

“I’ve been packing for weeks,” said Debbie Haskett.

After losing her husband to cancer in 2011, the 55-year-old former housekeeper moved from Indiana to Portland to be near her sister.

But finding work proved harder than Haskett thought, and relatives couldn’t afford to help.

“I was on the streets for a few years. I was on the railroad tracks on Columbia Ridge,” she said. “I was living in a tent. I was in the snow, dragging water, dragging wood.”

Haskett remained homeless until earlier this year, when a doctor told her that nearby gravel lot was poised to play host to an experimental tiny house village, the result of a one-year pilot project organized by the City of Portland.

With 14 tiny homes, it could house 14 women. Haskett was the first to secure a spot. On Friday, she’ll leave that spot to move into an apartment of her own.

“My heart is just thumping,” she said, smiling. “It’ll be good.”

Debbie Haskett in front of her tiny home
Debbie Haskett in front of her tiny home

By the end of 2017, Haskett will be one of nine women who have moved on from the Kenton Women’s Village to permanent housing.

Five of those women, said staff, have also found jobs while living at the village, which is run by Catholic Charities.

Managers are on hand seven days a week to help residents in get back on their feet.

“I think there are so many barriers to overcome to achieve permanent housing, and some of them can be an ID that they need to get a job application or having a resume intact,” said Bernadette Stetz, one of two full-time village managers. “It’s great to have on-site staff so that we can order phones and order IDs or some of the basic things that we overlook.”

Stetz said staff also find and help residents apply for housing grants they didn’t know they’d be eligible for.

In Haskett’s case, her $1,000 a month rent will be largely covered by grant subsidies provided by Cascadia Health Services.

Staff also monitor former residents, checking in as often as twice a week for 18 months after they move into permanent housing, to make sure they can handle the responsibilities of renting.

Some must attend classes on being a good tenant to make up for evictions or other problems on their record. The process has already paid off for some of the nine.

Jewell Ramirez moved into her own one-bedroom apartment in Southwest Portland last week.

“It gives me a sense of empowerment,” she said.

Jewell Ramirez
Jewell Ramirez

The 63-year-old mother of eight lived on the streets of downtown Portland for a decade after fleeing an abusive husband.

“I’ve got no front teeth,” she said, listing off impacts of the abuse. “He hit me in the mouth. When you get hit in the mouth you injure the nerves. Eventually when the nerve dies, your teeth die.”

During much of her time on the streets, Ramirez said she drank. After six months in the Kenton Women’s Village, she said, she’s sober, happy and home.

“My eyes pop open at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I’m up and at ‘em. I can’t sleep in anymore like I used to with lazy life, you know,” she said. “Now, I’m just brimming with things to do.”

The Kenton Women’s Village is halfway into its year-long commitment.

Staff said they’ve been told plans are in the works to build affordable housing on the property in the near future.

They said Wednesday they’ve had offers from churches and nonprofits to move the tiny house village elsewhere, but no decisions have been made.