Opportunity Village: for and by the homeless
Andrew Heben reports on the establishment of a project to provide legal transitional housing in Eugene, Oregon planned by the future residents themselves.
Looking at the American city, we see limited funding, an excess of land and materials going unused, lots of people who need and want something to do, and the damaging effects of some not having a stable space to call home. We see the need for some kind of security in place, a sense of place, of purpose, and of belonging. It seems only logical then to better utilise the resources within our communities to develop sensible and cost-effective solutions when approaching the issue of homelessness.
Opportunity Village is a new pilot project here in Eugene, Oregon doing just this by allowing those who are currently without housing to build and inhabit their own transitional micro-housing with the support of the surrounding community.
The plan is to start small with a village of up to 30 dwellings for individuals and couples. The dwellings will be compact (60 to 100 sq feet) and easily transportable (less than 8 feet wide). The idea is to provide a sense of ownership over a small, private space, and combine that with an abundance of shared, common spaces for cooking, gathering, and micro-business opportunities. The village will be built through a collaboration between village residents, community volunteers, and skilled builders.
In the process of waiting for a legal site, measures were taken to begin to incrementally realise this vision within existing programmes. The St Vincent De Paul car camping programme in Eugene allows up to three tents or RVs (4x4s) on land hosted by faith communities, businesses, non-profit organisations, or municipalities. In addition, simple shelters called Conestoga huts have been approved for use in the programme. These 6' by 10' shelters were designed to provide an insulated and lockable shelter while minimising the cost, skill, and labour required by more conventional, four-walled structures. Since then, over a dozen huts have been erected throughout the city for otherwise homeless individuals, some of which will be the initial residents of Opportunity Village.
The pilot project will also feature compact shelters made from modular 4’x8’ panels that have been constructed off site in the OVE shop. The interchangeable panels can be easily stacked, transported, and assembled on site during celebratory building events. This initiative is being guided by Backyard Bungalows, an organisation with the mission of making the tiny home affordable and more widely accessible.
The village will be self-managed with oversight provided by a non-profit organisation, Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE). Basic rules will be upheld through a community agreement that prohibits stealing, violence, and drug or alcohol use. Furthermore, it requires that all residents contribute to the operation and maintenance of the village through participating in security shifts, fundraising events, construction projects, cooking, gardening, or any number of other supportive activities. This encourages both skill- and relationship-building, emphasising the transitional aspect of the village.
In December 2012, a one-acre piece of city-owned land was approved by the City Council, roughly one year after a mayor-appointed task force seeking “new and innovative solutions to homelessness” recommended the establishment of “a safe and secure place to be 24/7.” A conditional use permit was granted for the one-time RV park earlier this month with no opposition at the hearing, and the pilot project will extend through October 2014. The first 17 residents, who have been meeting twice a week for the past few months, will occupy the site within the next few days, initially in tents as they work with volunteers to build the village.
Legally, the concept is being realised through an obscure state statute for transitional housing accommodations, which allows up to two campgrounds per municipality for “persons who lack permanent shelter and cannot be placed in other low income housing.” Portland’s Dignity Village is the only other case where it has been implemented. This self-governing village with around 60 residents at a time has been sanctioned for over a decade now, and has provided valuable lessons for Eugene’s rendition of a transitional village.
The primary drawback of Dignity is that it is sited near the airport on the edge of the city, leaving residents with at least a 45-minute bus commute to downtown. The isolated nature of the site has been unaccommodating to outside community support, and the village has witnessed a period of stagnation in recent years. While still in an industrial area, Opportunity Village has been fortunate to find a more central location that should enable a more effective approach to a broad range of issues.
The project provides a unique opportunity not only to address issues of homelessness and inequality, but also climate change, energy shortages, and social isolation. It can provide a model for building small, which Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality recently found to be the most effective green building practice out there, and for how we can better utilise the resources within our communities to solve our problems locally.
It’s really about bridging the existing gap between the housed and the unhoused, creating a place for that collaboration to occur, and building social capital. That is how OVE believes we can effectively transition people off the streets, through the village, and into more permanent living situations.