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Tiny house village for homeless women approved by Kenton neighborhood
Author: Molly Harbarger, The Oregonian/OregonLive
Posted: March 9, 2017


Read the full story on OregonLive

The newest idea in housing homeless people earned the first round of approval Wednesday night with a vote by the Kenton neighborhood in North Portland.

The neighborhood residents voted 178 to 75 in favor of a village of 14 tiny houses for homeless women.

Key city officials back the pilot project to form a community with shared restrooms, common space and a garden at a site off North Argyle Street, near Kenton Park. Charlie Hales kicked off the idea during his term as mayor and now Mayor Ted Wheeler is championing it as a better alternative to people sleeping on the streets or in tent villages.

"It's pouring rain out tonight, it's cold, it's windy. We've got lots of people living out on the streets and under bridges," Wheeler told a packed room of nearly 200 people. "We know we can do better. This is not permanent housing for people who are truly in distress, this is obviously not the kind of supported housing people would like to see on the other end of the homeless services spectrum, but it's an important gap we're filling."

The Portland State University Center for Public Interest Design teamed up with homeless advocacy organization Village Coalition to launch the project. The structures measure less than 8-by-12 feet and are more like sleeping pods with storage space than a home to build a life in.

Backers expect the pods to function like a homeless shelter, where outreach workers and social service agencies work with residents to help them access health care, financial services and, ultimately, permanent housing.


City and Multnomah County officials have been grappling with how to handle the area's homeless population -- more than 3,000 in a 2015 count and expected to be the same if not higher in a 2017 count.

In an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive at the beginning of his term, Wheeler said he wants to move away from the outdoor camping communities that sprung up organically in some places and received permission by the city to exist in the past few years.

Instead, he pointed to the tiny house idea as a better solution.

The pods are on an empty lot next to the Oregon Convention Center, but now will move to the Kenton neighborhood.

Catholic Charities will manage the village, providing support on-site and through social workers who will help each woman navigate her way to permanent housing.

Margi Dechenne, housing transitions program manager at Catholic Charities, said the nonprofit also will help the women figure out a self-governance structure so they can make sure someone is always on watch and ensure residents are following the ban on drugs, alcohol and overnight guests as well as other rules they'll set.

The model already exists for homeless camps Dignity Village, Right 2 Dream Too and Hazelnut Grove, but the Kenton project would be the first initiated by the city with neighborhood, city, county and advocate input. It would go on an unused site owned by the Portland Development Commission.

Wheeler promised that he and the City Council would respond to the neighborhood's needs and concerns, but a strong current of distrust still ran through much of the project's opposition.

"As it stands right now, I am one of the very frustrated citizens who pays his taxes, follows the rules and would never endorse this project as it stands," said Larry Mills, a 68-year Kenton resident. North Portland has been allowed to suffer while the city invested in other places, he said.

Others said they worry about safety and sanitation. Many said they were dubious of the city's claim that the project would truly end in a year.

Marc Jolin, director for the city-county homeless services office, said the project is scheduled to last 12 months from its opening date, which he hopes will be in mid-to-late April. Transition Projects, a nonprofit homeless services provider, has a tentative deal to use the land where the village will sit as an affordable housing site after that.

But if that development falls through or is delayed, Jolin said the city could possibly ask the neighborhood to extend the pilot project's lifespan.

"We will be there to help the village relocate when it is time for it to close down and if, for some reason, we are not able to find a new location, we will be there to make sure the women transition to some other space," Jolin said.

The bulk of comments and questions supported the idea.

Sheila Mason, who has lived in Kenton for more than 10 years, said she was skeptical of the idea when she heard about it in December. She joined the neighborhood association's subcommittee that worked with a team of high school and college students, nonprofits, advocates and city and county officials to put the plan together.

"To be honest, when I approached the situation I was not in favor," Mason said. "I came to my first meeting with some pretty tough questions that I presented in a pretty tough manner."

Over time, she grew enthusiastic about the plan after seeing it work in other places around the city.

"I have no illusion that it'll be perfect and I don't think you should either," Mason said. "Humans are messy. We all are in some way. But we have to start somewhere."

Jessie Burke, a 15-year Kenton resident and owner of Posies Bakery and Cafe, admonished the residents who spoke out against the project. She also co-owns The Society Hotel in Old Town and said she works with city officials on homelessness solutions and hears the same complaints all the time.

"Everyone crying about how terrible it is, but not in my backyard, is what we've heard in every neighborhood," Burke said. "As proud as I am of this neighborhood, I want the neighborhood, as well as the business community, to be a model for the city. Why not Kenton?"

Women from Kenton will be first in line for the 14 houses, with women from North Portland next.

Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly urged residents to vote for the project and took the stage to assure people that through her leadership of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, this would not be just a Kenton issue.

"No neighborhood is going to be exempt from this conversation," Eudaly said. "This is a problem for all of us to solve. We're not talking about importing people to Kenton. We're talking about housing your houseless neighbors."