Downtown bridge to tiny home: Small digs might be able to solve America’s homelessness problem

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This article originally appeared on Narratively.

Narratively In 2001, a group of homeless people In Portland, Oregon, set up a campsite under a downtown bridge. The city didn’t have enough shelter space to accommodate its homeless population, and as the camp attracted more and more people, authorities began regular sweeps, clearing away tents and sleeping bags — which inevitably cropped right back up. Then something less predictable happened. A group of community leaders and activists teamed up with those living at the camp and hatched a plan: make the tent village permanent by developing a community of tiny homes for homeless people.

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The donations station at Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. Tiny home villages provide access points for community members who want to donate directly to homeless people — whether it is through a weekend spent helping to build homes, or through food, money, or material donations.

Mark Lakeman, principal at the Portland architecture firm Communitecture and an activist who volunteered design services for the project, says the organizers hoped this new community would be a prototype not only for addressing homelessness, but also for addressing Americans’ propensity for bigger and bigger homes. According to the U.S. census, between 1950 and 2012 the size of the typical single family home ballooned from 983 square feet to 2,500. The environmental implications of this phenomenon are not hard to grasp, and the trend toward more personal space has made Americans increasingly isolated from one another. The organizers of what came to be called Dignity Village argued that their project could create a model for reducing humans’ environmental impact while simultaneously fostering a sense of community.

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Wearing kneepads and covered in sawdust while taking a break from a home renovation in Southeast Portland, Lakeman recalls that at first, the reaction from the Portland City Council was dismissive. “That’s crazy,” the organizers were told. But it wasn’t crazy!” says Lakeman, asserting that the reason homeless people can’t succeed is “because they don’t live in place-based communities.”

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Raised eyebrows notwithstanding, the city gave the organizers a plot of land in an industrial area of Portland. Beyond that, the organizers were responsible for all of the village’s expenses, covered through resident dues, private donations and resident-run businesses, which in the past have included a hot dog cart and firewood operation. Today, Dignity Village provides shelter to about 65 individuals and operates as a self-governing community for formerly homeless people. There is no outside board overseeing operations. There is no government funding. Dignity Village is run by the people of Dignity Village.

A giant, colorful mural spans the ground in the middle of the village, while benches and little gardens are scattered throughout. At the village’s council meeting one evening in the fall of 2016, the topic of conversation turns to JD and Ruthie’s place in the village. Well, their former place. The couple recently moved out of Dignity Village to an apartment, but their extreme hoarding and the property damage they generated, including stashing urine-filled bottles, has rendered their unit potentially uninhabitable for future residents.

A tiny home at Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. The village has been evolving and expanding, adding more homes, since it was founded in 2001.
A tiny home at Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. The village has been evolving and expanding, adding more homes, since it was founded in 2001.

Rick, who, like many of the subjects interviewed for this story, requested that his last name not be used, makes a proposal to allot some of the village’s surplus funds this month toward bleach — to get the urine smell out. The council unanimously agrees to provide five dollars to cover five bottles of bleach from Dollar Tree. Somebody utters the word “cesspool.” Another says he went in there and “the floor is mushy.” Tumbleweed, who sits in a wheelchair with long gray hair in a braid down his back, and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, beseeches the Golden Rule of homeless living: “You pack it in, you pack it out,” he says. “Nobody should leave a place like that.”

From the back of the community room, Lisa, who sits with her legs casually dangling off the kitchen counter, brings up what’s to be done about JD and Ruthie themselves. “As head of the village intake community, next Tuesday you need to discuss DNR. Do Not Return,” she says.

As evidenced by the main order of business at tonight’s meeting, things aren’t always pretty at Dignity Village. But they are self-contained.

“It would be easy to look at Dignity Village and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of little sleeping pods.’ But what you’re actually seeing is that it’s an inherently collaborative culture; they’re in proximity and they’re working and helping each other,” says Lakeman, who would like to see this style of collaborative living replicated throughout the country. “The whole impetus for doing this is to see the restoration of the village — everywhere.”

The community structure of Dignity Village hardly qualifies it as a utopia. “The community aspect here is pretty cool — not always, though,” says Lisa. “We don’t like each other at all times. We will fight like cats and dogs.” Yet, Lisa also recalls the time a few years back when there was a fire in her structure. She and her husband were in the community room, and flames from a busted propane heater had an hour to smolder inside their unit before they realized. But, “By the time the fire department left we had clothes, we had blankets, we had food, we had a place to sleep. We had everything we really absolutely needed,” Lisa says. The village has a stockpile of donated items it keeps in a shed, but that’s not where this stuff came from. “This came from individuals.”

“Even if we don’t like each other, the village does pull together,” Lisa says. “We’re a family. Oh God, we’re a dysfunctional family, but we’re a family.”

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The mural in Dignity Village.

Sixteen years after its conception, Dignity Village has served as a model for several other homeless tiny home villages throughout the Northwest. Similar villages have also cropped up in towns such as Fresno, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and Ithaca, New York. They are a direct response to the increase in homeless tent encampments created during the Great Recession and housing crisis. Their existence is almost always contingent on the willingness of city officials to grant land to a project, and then to bend land use and zoning rules — villages are often situated on lots zoned for industrial use, and the tiny home structures themselves are classified in building code grey areas as things like trailers or “wooden tents.”

While first and foremost a response to the acute problem of homelessness, villages like Dignity are also much more than that. They are experiments in conscious, communal living, of living along with, not just alongside, neighbors. The people who live in these villages, people who have become homeless for all sorts of reasons, all share one simultaneously heartbreaking and liberating quality: They have lost everything. And it’s from that place of emptiness, of space, that a new way of living can emerge.

* * *

At her office in downtown Seattle, Kshama Sawant is breaking down in tears. The first-ever Socialist Alternative Party member of Seattle’s city council, Sawant is recalling a recent council meeting at which a homeless woman spoke about her experience trying to find a place to sleep. “The only shelter she was offered was shelter where she couldn’t take her pet cat,” Sawant recalls. The woman told the council that the cat has been her lifeline; it prevented her from committing suicide on three different occasions. The woman chose to remain homeless rather than give up her cat.

“Can you blame her?” Sawant asks, her tears clearing and her gaze now sharp. “Among those who are anti-homeless or anti-poor there’s a very convenient notion that [homeless] people brought it upon themselves and that they should accept whatever is given to them.” She adds, “It’s not about the cat per se, but what kind of vision of society are we generating?”

Sawant supports an initiative to fully fund an emergency plan that would provide shelter for the more than three thousand homeless people in Seattle, which has seen an emergence of large, unsanctioned tent encampments. Despite sweeps by authorities, the camps keep coming back. This refusal of Seattle’s homeless population to disappear has carved out the opportunity for less conventional housing to take hold. One of these is a tiny home village located across town from Sawant’s downtown office, in South Seattle’s Othello neighborhood.

The communal dining area at Othello Village in Seattle, Washington.
The communal dining area at Othello Village in Seattle, Washington.

A kid in a purple sweatshirt, about ten years old, comes into the kitchen of Othello Village carrying a box of food. A resident here, he sets the box on the fold-out dining table in the makeshift kitchen — a large rectangular tent housing a refrigerator, water cooler, sink, and cooking equipment. Inside the box are individual Caesar salads with plastic over the tops like TV dinners. “Donations,” he calls to whoever is around.

Mark, a middle-aged man who has lived here for several months, peels back the plastic wrap on a salad after checking the date stamped on the bottom. “The number one rule as a homeless person eating donated food,” he says, “…;check the expiration date.” They’ve had stuff from seven years ago donated here. Grandma dies and the family, cleaning out her kitchen, thinks they will be doing a service by giving it all to the homeless, something like that. “I found steaks from year 2000, one time,” another resident says flatly.

Othello Village, founded in March of 2016, provides shelter to formerly homeless people, many of whom came here after months or even years living in tents. It is sponsored by the Low Income Housing Institute, a local nonprofit that owns the land on which Othello Village exists and worked with the city of Seattle to get permission to build the village. Sixty-seven people currently live here — including several children, whose bicycles and plastic toys are sprinkled around the village common area. One of the many reasons many couples and families avoid traditional shelter housing is the concern that their family units will be broken up.

Mitze Buffer stands in the doorway of her tiny home at Seattle’s Othello Village. Having spent six years sleeping in a tent before coming to Othello, Buffer says she was so unused to a private dwelling that during her first week she locked her keys into her tiny home three separate times.
Mitze Buffer stands in the doorway of her tiny home at Seattle’s Othello Village. Having spent six years sleeping in a tent before coming to Othello, Buffer says she was so unused to a private dwelling that during her first week she locked her keys into her tiny home three separate times.

Mitze Buffer is the bookkeeper at Othello Village. (There are a few different administrative roles for residents who want to take on extra responsibility). She spent six years homeless before coming to Othello, some nights sleeping in tent encampments, others in doorways. “Anyone who is homeless has experienced loss after loss. They’re stripped down to their bare nothings,” says Buffer. “Being here can restore a lot of confidence.”

Othello Village is a large self-governed entity, operated by residents, along with some outside oversight from the Low Income Housing Institute and community organization Nickelsville Works. Residents must work nine hours a week of security detail — manning the check-in station just beyond the gated entrance to the village, plus a couple hours of outside community service in the greater Seattle area. There’s no fighting, drinking, or drug use on-site. (This is true for all the villages profiled in this article.) If any of those rules are violated, residents are kicked out and must have the approval of the entire village if they want a second chance. “It’s just a little bit of structure but it’s not invasive. We still have the freedom to come and go and be ourselves,” says Denny Adams, a resident who, like many others here, extols the virtues of a peer-run community.

There are stories of residents who transition out of Othello Village into more traditional housing yet they still come back to visit multiple times a week. Bradley, who has been a resident here for one month, explains it simply, saying, “An apartment is lonely.”

* * *

Arin knows why management suggested she be interviewed for this story. She is exactly the kind of resident that Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington, would like the media to know about. “I feel like I’m a prime example of what this program’s supposed to be made for,” she says on a rainy afternoon, stretched out in a leather recliner in Quixote Village’s common area. “It brought me off the streets, it got me clean off my addiction, it made me part of this community.” At 31, Arin moved here after four months living in a tent, caught in the grip of a ten-year addiction to methamphetamines.

In her three years here at the Village, Arin has gone to rehab and gotten clean, landed a job, accomplished getting her driver’s license unsuspended, and was even baptized. She currently has two years’ sobriety — she found out today that she qualifies to be a sponsor. Index cards with positive affirmations written in different colored marker line the walls of her home, and she grows a robust garden out front. Arin currently works at a Subway sandwich shop and plans to enroll in electrical engineering classes in the fall. “Next week I’m gonna meet with my advocate and look everything up — what I need to do, where school’s at, which is probably up north by Tacoma,” she says. “It’s kinda’ scary to change but it’s cool, you know. I’m ready. I can do it.”

Quixote Village cost $3.05 million to build, making it far more expensive than the other tiny home villages. The funds came from county, state and federal grants plus about $200,000 in community donations. Constructed in 2013, Quixote features thirty small cottages (144 square feet each) with one-half baths, each costing about $19,000 to build. By contrast, the tiny homes at most other villages cost well under $5,000. Quixote is one of, if not the only tiny home village project in the nation which also fits into the “permanent supportive housing” model for addressing homelessness.

The most significant way in which Quixote Village differs from most other types of permanent supportive housing is the same thing that ties it to the other, less polished villages: the community. Quixote features a large common building with a shared kitchen, showers, and a living/dining room. It has high ceilings and a small wood fireplace surrounded by couches, armchairs and rocking chairs. Residents opted against putting a TV in this room, in order to keep it peaceful. Instead there’s a separate TV room down the hall. There’s also a rigorous weekly chore schedule, and a system of checks-and-balances to make sure nobody skips their duties. The kitchen area, for example, gets cleaned three times a day, at eight a.m., two p.m. and seven p.m.

Also housed in Quixote Village’s common building are the offices of Raul Salazar and Jaycie Osterberg. They are not residents, but are the two staff members responsible for managing the village’s daily operations. A former probation officer and former university housing program manager, respectively, Salazar and Osterberg share duties which encompass driving residents to the grocery store; mediating disputes; helping residents create and carry out life goals, like finding work or schooling; administering drug tests; and leading interventions for active addicts. On a good day their jobs can include helping someone celebrate getting a job. On a bad day, they might have to evict somebody and be called “the man” by an angry resident.

“Sometimes we have the really serious stuff where somebody’s going to lose their housing if they don’t get ahold of their addiction,” says Salazar. While Quixote Village, like all other villages profiled in this story, is a sober living environment, that’s a loose definition, or at least a progressive one. Residents struggling with addiction are linked up with rehab facilities and other treatment options. Salazar and Osterberg must determine on a case-by-case basis whether residents are taking their sobriety seriously enough — even if they relapse — to stay. If they’re not, they have to be evicted, because active users can be triggering to recovering addicts.

“It’s hard. It’s really hard,” says Osterberg, of evicting a resident. “‘Cause you know where they’re going. They’re going back to the streets.”

Unlike the other villages, at Quixote residents sign lease agreements, and Salazar and Osterberg are responsible for making sure the terms of the lease are met. If not, they alone have the authority to exile a resident.

“Members of the camp used to be able to come see each other and work things out if there was a disagreement or whatever. Now it’s just everyone calling Raul or Jaycie and reporting it,” says Theresa, who is 26 and has lived at Quixote Village since its inception in 2013. Before that she, like the rest of the original residents here, stayed at Camp Quixote — a homeless tent encampment that rotated between church parking lots throughout Olympia for eight years.

Residents of Camp Quixote worked alongside the nonprofit Panza to help design the village. Questions such as whether each unit should have a front porch (yes), or whether there should be a TV set in the main common room (no), were decided collectively. Quixote Village still maintains a five-person resident council. But, as Arin describes it, “It’s not self-governing here. There are rules and staff makes all the decisions.”

Theresa agrees. “The self-governing thing has gone away a lot,” she says, but adds that the stability the village has given her and other residents, many of whom have overcome addictions here, has been invaluable. Before Quixote Village she had never lived anywhere for longer than a year. She had been homeless seven times previously, the earliest being when she was eleven, and her parents told her they were just camping. “I was wondering why we’re bringing the cats camping,” she recalls with a rueful laugh.

Now, she and her girlfriend live next door to one another in separate cottages. They both work and make art. Avid readers, they maintain book collections that were too impractical to keep in their tents at Camp Quixote. “People don’t realize,” Theresa says, “With homeless people if you just show support and you don’t belittle them, usually they’ll try to get better.”

* * *

It is election night in America. Soon, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be our next President. A lot of people are afraid, and tomorrow morning a lot more people will be afraid. But inside a yurt in Eugene, Oregon, the mood is light. The whole village is here for this mandatory weekly meeting — about thirty people gathered together on the couches, chairs, and computer workstations that make up the furniture of this communal yurt. There are a few boxes of cookies and bags of potato chips on a big table, and people help themselves.

The meeting starts with kudos — appreciation given to people who have done things that help the village: Scott, for getting the refrigerator moved; Carlos, for dealing with the electrical issues. There’s a smattering of applause. There is one latecomer, who enters through the side door. He turns out to be Carlos, having missed his kudos. He totes a small black dog in a harness over his shoulder and remains standing at the center of the yurt, a commanding presence coupled with a big smile. Carlos asks if anyone is interested in pitching in for the community’s annual Thanksgiving meal. He doesn’t want the event to exclude anybody, though it is necessary to purchase food. “I’m thinking ten, twenty bucks off your EBT or out of your pocket.” He encourages people to come find him after the meeting to sign up, and then takes a seat next to his wife Nonni, a Hawaiian woman with red fingernails and a tie-dyed Minnesota Vikings t-shirt.

Andrew Heben, the project director of Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon, stands in front of a tiny home and a conestoga hut, the two types of housing available to the 30-something residents of Opportunity Village.
Andrew Heben, the project director of Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon, stands in front of a tiny home and a Conestoga hut, the two types of housing available to the 30-something residents of Opportunity Village.

Food is a bit of a touchy subject — there has been a lot of food theft over the past several months. In the summer the village resident council and outside board of community leaders which helps to oversee the village, agreed to purchase a security camera with discretionary funds. It will be installed soon. Still, there was a theft this week that needs to be discussed. A resident was cooking food in the communal kitchen but left it unattended for a few moments, when some of it went missing.

One resident, Al, pipes up: “I just wanna ask — would whoever took it raise their hand please?”

“Yeah, right,” someone else calls. Al shrugs. “Worth a try.”

Carlos stands up again. Before he speaks someone teases him: “I love that you gotta stand up like some Southern lawyer.” Everyone laughs. Carlos cracks a big smile but proceeds with his impromptu announcement — directed towards the anonymous food thief, who is in the room somewhere.

“I swear, come knock on my door. We usually have something. We don’t have a lot but we’re willing to share, so you don’t have to steal. If I have nothing, I’ll go with you door to door and we’ll ask…; We’re all in the same fucked-up predicament as one another and if we help each other out we can prevent issues like this from happening.”

Two individually painted and decorated tiny homes at Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon. Residents of tiny home villages like Opportunity can settle in, gaining a sense of day-to-day stability that is impossible to achieve when homeless.
Two individually painted and decorated tiny homes at Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon.

The meeting marches forward, and it is now time to elect a new member to the village council — the seven-person leadership committee that works alongside Opportunity Village’s outside board. Nonni is nominated for reelection to her current council seat. “Second!” “Third!” “Fourth!” Her nomination is official. Slips of paper are passed around and every village resident has the chance to check “yes” or “no” to reelect Nonni. After a quick tally her position is secured. That’s it for the meeting…;until Carlos stands up once again. “I got a filibuster,” he jokes, before cracking a smile and plopping back down on the couch. Meeting adjourned.

What not all of the residents know is that Carlos struggles with depression that affects him so severely Nonni says at times she’s had to call a local crisis intervention team called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) to come to Opportunity Village and treat him. Nonni also suffers from depression. They are far from alone in this struggle. “Basically everybody here has PTSD,” one Opportunity Village resident said. It’s a natural result of sleeping outside in fear, fighting for your life every day.

Nonni says being active on the village council is a crucial tool in treating both her and her husband’s mental health challenges. “I don’t want to just lie in bed all day,” she says. “Instead, I know we’re doing something good.”

The cost of living at Opportunity Village is just $30 per month per person, plus ten hours a week of work on security or beautification — gardening, cleaning up, etc. Nonni says she and Carlos live on about $300 a month. “If we do it just right, $300 lasts us the whole month and we can feed one or two of our friends,” she explains.

Painted flags decorate the perimeter to Othello Village in Seattle, Washington.
Painted flags decorate the perimeter to Othello Village in Seattle, Washington.

The activists who organized Opportunity Village in 2012 have broke ground on a next-tier project called Emerald Village. While still designed as transitional housing for homeless people, the monthly dues will be higher and residents will earn equity on their homes. In the planning stages of Emerald Village, there was a question about whether to include individual bathrooms in each home, which would have limited the number of units that could be built. While board members supported the move, the vote came in against them. The homeless individuals said they would rather have smaller units with communal bathrooms — because they wanted to provide housing for more people.

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This story was made possible with support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Journalism / Fellowship Award.