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Portland Tribune: Clackamas County starts framing shelters for veterans
Author: Peter Wong
Posted: October 16, 2017

Read the original article in the Portland Tribune.

Clackamas County commissioners joined about two dozen volunteers Saturday (Oct. 14) to start framing the tiny houses that will shelter veterans making the transition to permanent housing.

Wood frames for nine of 10 houses — the ultimate first-round total is 15 — were secured to their wooden floors by late morning at a temporary assembly site south of the Public Services Building in Oregon City.

They represent the first tangible step in a transitional shelter village, which will eventually contain 30 units, planned on 1.5 acres owned by the county at SE 115th Avenue and Jennifer Street in the Clackamas Industrial Area. The site is south of the Fred Meyer distribution center.

"It's a first step in addressing the homeless vets problem," Board Chairman Jim Bernard said. "I'm excited that we can move forward on this."

The 2016-17 county budget included $300,000 for the project — the money was carried over into the current budget — but the frames erected Saturday were the first visible signs of progress after months of planning. County officials looked to Opportunity Village in Eugene, which has 35 residents, as a model.

In addition to Bernard, Commissioners Ken Humberston, Paul Savas and Martha Schrader joined volunteers from Portland State University and The City Repair Project, a nonprofit based in Portland.

"It's cleaner, and it will have a bigger impact than repairing a car," said Bernard, the third-generation owner of an auto repair business in Milwaukie before he closed it earlier this year.

Each unit, known as a "pod," is 8 feet by 12 feet.

Almost 700 trusses for the tiny houses come from the Treeline Stage used at the Pickathon music festival, which was Aug. 3-6 outside Happy Valley.

The village will house veterans while they connect with services and make a transition to more permanent housing.

"It takes a village of community partnerships to find solutions to homelessness," said Oregon City Commissioner Nancy Ide, who was an observer at the temporary assembly site.

Ide took part in the county's 2017 homeless count, which showed an increase of 4 percent from 2015 and 11 percent from 2013 — but a 35 percent jump among children and 54 percent among those in places not deemed suitable for housing.

Follow-on to Kenton

The actual tiny houses will be moved to the Clackamas industrial site only after a county hearings officer acts on a conditional-use permit , which is scheduled for a public hearing Nov. 30.

County commissioners voted Aug. 2 to allow transitional shelters in industrial zones, through a change in the zoning and development ordinance, but limit them to county-owned land.

Bernard said water and sewer lines are being extended to the site, but because it is already zoned for industrial use, they do not require additional approval.

Catholic Charities is negotiating with the county Health, Housing and Human Services Department to operate the village.

Catholic Charities also operates the Kenton Women's Village, which consists of 14 pods in North Portland. Kenton is a joint project with the city, City Repair Project, Village Coalition and SRG Partnership, a Portland architectural firm. Communitecture, also based in Portland, is the firm involved in the Clackamas County project.

Both villages have shared kitchens and restrooms, aside from the individual houses.

The Center for Public Interest Design at the PSU School of Architecture has worked on both village projects.

"We have learned from what works and what is not working at the Kenton Village," said Todd Ferry, research associate for the center. "We always think about how we can improve design for the next village, and that is what we are working on now."

Under Clackamas County's plan, once the first 15 houses are in place — possibly by the end of this year — resident veterans will take part in building 15 more houses after acquiring skills in workshops.

Although the villages in North Portland and Clackamas are the only projects of their kind it has worked on, the PSU center also is involved in accessory dwelling units and rehabilitation of larger apartment buildings, plus work in far-flung places such as Ecuador and Haiti.

"What we do is explore how architecture and design can serve underserved populations," no matter where they are, Ferry said. "We are dealing with a housing crisis and we are looking at it from every angle we can."

Two views

As a county commissioner since 2011, Savas took part directly in homeless counts in 2015 and on Jan. 23. The latter count turned up 85 veterans among those without permanent shelter in the county.

"In getting the message out with this event, it's more important that people are aware of the problem," Savas said.

"Numerically, every little bit helps. But we are treating the symptom. That is not the most effective way to go. We need to think more about the causes."

Savas has said land use policies at all government levels — state, regional and local — have contributed to unavailable or unaffordable housing.

For Humberston, who took office in January, the Clackamas project is personal. He is a Marine veteran.

"I am lucky. I have no need of any veterans' services of any kind. I came out OK," he said. "But a lot of people did not come out OK, and we need to do something for them."

Humberston said the project can serve as a model for other efforts to reduce the number of people without shelter.

"If we can move people through this into more permanent housing and stability, we can keep working on it," he said. "If this works, as we believe it will, maybe other folks around our county will say we can help families, women and children, and maybe even get to single males."