Building Villages to Address Homelessness

By Don MacGillivray

It is well known that Portland has a housing problem, which is the primary cause of increased homelessness. The only satisfactory answer to the problem is to build new housing that is truly affordable, a figure that is calculated to be 30 percent or less of the occupant’s income. 

A relatively new, temporary solution to housing the homeless is to build villages that can provide secure housing away from the dangers of street camping, while providing an environment that will transition residents toward a better life.

Over the last two years, a research team at Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative has studied Portland’s six existing villages for the homeless to study how this type of temporary housing can be replicated. The report describes the homeless camps and the various characteristics that make them successful for both the villagers and the surrounding community.

The oldest and best known is Dignity Village in N Portland. It was established in 2004 with 50 formerly homeless people. Another is Hazelnut Grove on land owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation, established in 2015 with about 25 villagers. The Kenton Women’s Village was built and managed by Catholic Charities in 2019 with 20 residents. Agape Village was completed in 2019 with 15 residents near Kelly Butte on property owned by the Portland Central Nazarene Church. St. Johns Village is managed by Do Good Multnomah on St. Johns Church property as the home for 19 people.

These villages are composed of pods for living that are 75-225 square feet in size. Most include electricity. In some cases, solar panels, propane or generators are used. A few use portable toilets. One does not have access to city water so bottled water is provided. 

Some villages charge their residents $75 a month rent. Most of the villages have a centralized community building with facilities for cooking, laundry, toilets, showers, storage, garbage, running water and/or television. In a few cases the facilities are found in a church or other nearby building.

The report gave village living a generally sober, but favorable review: 1) 80 percent of the village residents were satisfied with the living conditions, 2) the ideal size of a village is about 25 residents, 3) the village residents are 80 percent white while 40 percent of the homeless population is racially mixed, 4) food insecurity was a problem in half of the villages, 5) the villages are usually self-governed and most have an on-site manager and 6) problems between the villages and the neighbors become manageable over time.

Most villages have weathered the opposition and complaints from neighbors. Essentially, they developed support and opposition subsided as they became more established. The on-site staff person that works with a self-governing group of residents is an important factor in the success of a village.

City Commissioner Dan Ryan is working to create six “Safe Rest Villages” that will each serve 40-60 residents. They will live in a village of small, individual pods along with a building that includes utilities, community space and other amenities. One meal per day will be provided, as well as case management and behavioral health resources. The villages will have a single sponsor contracted through the City-County Joint Office of Homeless Services, with funding through Metro or the federal government.

The six sites under development include: 1) Sunderland North Village for recreational vehicles that will be near Dignity Village, 2) NW Naito Village will be in the NW 100th block on leased property, 3) SE Reedway Village at the 106th block on land owned by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, 4) Peninsula Crossing Village will be on N Syracuse St. on land owned by the Portland Housing Bureau, 5) Menlo Park Village will be at SE 122nd Ave. and E Burnside St. on land owned by TriMet and 6) Queer Affinity Village will be on SW Naito Pkwy. on land owned by the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Two of these Safe Rest Villages should be completed and operational in June. One other is expected to be completed in August and the remaining three should be available by fall or early winter.

These new villages are receiving active criticism from neighbors at three locations and the city has rejected these complaints to date. Neighbors want assurances of their safety and an advisory role in the operation of the villages.

Each pod costs $16,000 and it is estimated that the operational costs will be $36,000 per pod per year. This is in comparison to $20,000 a year to provide a bed in a homeless shelter or $40,000 a year to provide a motel room for a homeless person.

A new county program has begun that will house the homeless in vacant apartments where landlords are being offered a year’s market-rate rent with the damage deposit. The $4 million available for this program will fund about 250 homeless residents.

The costs of living without adequate housing are unimaginable and paid mostly by those without any proper shelter, which is partly why it is ignored. But everyone will eventually pay if things don’t change.

Building Villages to Address Homelessness

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