As the coronavirus pandemic endures, Portland’s houseless community continues to suffer. A new hygiene hub — designed by Lisa Patterson, PSU M.Arch alumna — takes aim at many of the ongoing issues facing people experiencing homelessness in the community.
Hygiene For All (H4A) officially opened Dec. 15 to provide bedding and clothing exchanges, medical aid, showers, bathrooms and an outdoor warming area for Portland’s houseless community. H4A is located on the east side under the Morrison Bridge.
"I think the beauty of it is that it's not just building for the sake of building,” Patterson said. “It's building to address a larger social injustice or environmental injustice, or both.”
H4A isn’t Patterson’s first endeavor into social justice design. As a student, she played a major role in designing the Kenton Women’s Village, a community of tiny homes designed to provide transitional housing for women, which also involved the efforts of dozens of housing activists, houseless community members, architects, planners, design students, neighbors and charitable organizations.
“It prepared me to get thrown into a project like Hygiene for All and navigate it with less fear and more encouragement,” Patterson said. “To look around and see this amazing city that shows up and does this work around design and design thinking. It's really powerful."
This project has been underway for the last 2 years. H4A Executive Director Sandra Comstock said the vision started with the Compassionate Change and Dignity Coalition and a desire to address evictions and sweeps of Portland’s unsheltered population.
“Serially arresting unsheltered neighbors for failure to pay fines related to simply trying to meet their basic bodily needs wasn't just inhumane,” Comstock said. “It was the machine for creating the trauma, health crises and hardship, that becomes a machine for generating chronic houselessness in which all city residents pay the price in astronomical costs to our economic public health and civic life.”
In short, she added, H4A is “a hopeful human experiment rooting for real change that can benefit us all.”
In addition to offering a bedding and clothing exchange and medical aid, H4A offers a place to sleep for houseless staff who can’t make it back to traditional shelters before curfew.
“On the surface levels we provide showers, bathrooms and basic clothing and basic first aid supplies, and the importance of that should never ever be undermined. People need to have their basic hygienic needs met,” said H4A Lead Coordinator Zack Hart. “But to me, there's another incredibly valuable side of Hygiene for All, and that is the community that we have built. It is a place of mutual aid, of love and acceptance, where we take grace, and accountability for others, and ourselves in the face of an overarching society built upon oppression of specific peoples.”
Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, speaking at H4A’s opening ceremony, said the city needs more creative solutions like the hub to provide basic needs and treat people with dignity.
“As a former homeless runaway I know what it's like not to have a safe place to sleep, or reliable access to a bathroom. As the mom of the son who uses a wheelchair, I know that lack of access to accessible restrooms can severely limit a person's life. As a former bookstore owner I know the impact our lack of public restrooms have on our business community. As a housing advocate, I know that hygiene access is one of the most basic things that we must provide to people experiencing homelessness,” Eudaly said. “And as a temporary politician, I know that we can and must do better as a city and a community.”
Creating architecture with and for communities has always been the goal for Patterson. Designing H4A was nothing short of that. The project inspired a community of designers — students and professionals alike — to come together and design for change.
Patterson worked with Todd Ferry, architecture faculty and Senior Research Associate with Portland State’s Center for Public Interest Design (CPID), and CPID team members Molly Esteve (PSU M.Arch, Marta Petteni (also with PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Coalition) and architectural designer Nick Hodge on the site’s layout. Design of the structures and storage fell to PSU School of Architecture students Aki Robinson, Carmen Glass, Mohi Almulaydan and Julio Miranda, with Patterson’s guidance, as part of a recent public interest design seminar course. Several of the structures at H4A were provided through the Useful Waste Initiative — a project spearheaded by CPID Fellow and architect Julia Mollner (PSU M.Arch) that enables construction mock-ups to be reused as shelter, where they would otherwise just go to landfills — and built by partner Rembold Development.
“The beautiful thing about this project for me is the fact that there are so many people involved,” Patterson said. “It takes a village, and everyone just showed up, despite COVID, despite fires and everything. There was so much community support and volunteers.”
Designing H4A and working with the PSU students exemplifies what Patterson believes is so galvanizing about the School of Architecture and CPID as she and other alumni continue using their expertise, post-graduation, to empower the community.
"I knew, before I even got to Portland State University, that I wanted to do architecture with and for communities. I never wanted to design and build something that wasn't inspired by a community's actual voice and needs. And then when I got to Portland State School of Architecture and worked so closely with the Center for Public Interest Design, I learned that it was possible,” she said. “You can do anything if you get the right people in the room.”
Karen O'Donnell Stein contributed reporting.