This story is the first of a multipart CityLab series launching this month on the state of homelessness policy in American cities.
Back in 2011, Eugene, Oregon—like many U.S. cities—had an Occupy camp pop up in a public space. And like in many cities, Eugene’s camp became a residence for not only activists but large numbers of homeless individuals. The camp was eventually shut down for safety reasons, another story common to Occupy encampments across the country. But in Eugene, something unexpected happened next.
Having finally seen the scope of the city’s problem with homelessness up close, its leaders vowed to actually do something about it. Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy set up a task force on homelessness to come up with solutions, and her directive was taken seriously: Three years later, Eugene has something to show for these efforts.
The task force’s main recommendation was to create a place where the city’s homeless could be safe, during the day and at night. How exactly to accomplish that, no one was sure. But around that time, Andrew Heben, a 27-year-old urban planner who had recently written his senior thesis at the University of Cincinnati on “Tent City Urbanism,” moved to Eugene.
“He was this fresh-faced kid who came in with bright ideas,” recalls Michael Wisth, then a community-development grants manager for Eugene. Heben's idea to help Eugene's homeless was to move from a model of scattered and temporary “tent cities” to a consolidated village of “tiny homes.” Heben and a crew of Occupy activists began pitching the idea at community meetings, billing it as an innovative way for the city to make good on the task force recommendations. They organized a board of directors made up of several well-respected community leaders, drew up an attractive and well-organized blueprint for the village, and even built a sample structure so the community could see exactly what they were intending to build.
The city agreed to donate an acre plot of land to the project and gave them a year lease as a pilot project. Heben and the other organizers raised $100,000 in cash donations and about another $100,000 worth of donated materials to build the village, which would ultimately provide shelter for 42 previously unhoused people. (By contrast, the median value of a single family home in Eugene is $250,000.)
They built small wooden sleeping units measuring either 8-by-8 feet or 8-by-10 feet. (Heben eventually replicated plans for some of the units and formed a company called Backyard Bungalows to supply them to others interested in the designs. However, his village designs predate the company, and neither he nor the company made any profit from the Opportunity Village project.) A group called Community Supported Shelters put up several smaller, domed shelters called conestoga huts. Kitchen and bathroom facilities for everyone are located in communal buildings.
None of the shelters fit the city code’s definition of a dwelling or residence, so, while a building official did inspect them for safety, the units were given an exemption from official building code restrictions.
“If you get the right people supporting a project, they can find a way to do it if they want to,” Heben says. Wisth, who was the city’s lead staff person working with Opportunity Village, says the mandate from city council led him and other city staffers to make it happen. “We interpreted the building codes in terms of what applied to the project. It was like finding the roundest square peg to fit in an octagonal hole,” he says.
Today, Opportunity Village features brightly painted shelters, garden boxes, a communal yurt with public computers, weekly village meetings, and a seven-member council working continually to improve the quality of life of the village’s residents. It would be wrong to glorify the place as as a permanent way out of homelessness for the people living there, but the community is something special in its own right.
Theresa (who declined to give her last name), who serves on the village council, says the communal kitchen facilities allow residents to pool resources for healthier eating. “We’re able to have meat and produce more often. Instead of fast food and processed food if we all pitch in we can buy a roast and share it,” she says. Then she pauses, thinking for a moment. She doesn’t want this to come off the wrong way. “We’re really still camping,” she says. “But there are a lot of benefits to not being under a tree in the park. That’s for damn sure.”
Opportunity Village residents pay $30 a month in dues, and are required to serve on gate duty, letting residents into the locked site if they come back after dark, as well as a variety of cleaning and maintenance jobs. The village has a strict policy of no drugs or alcohol on the site. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: keeping the village safe for residents puts it out of reach for homeless individuals struggling with addiction.
Opportunity Village has its limitations as far as established best practices for homeless populations go. The site does not offer its own social services, for instance, but does work with existing outside providers to get residents services and job placement help. There is also no formal program for transitioning to permanent supportive housing. Bryant, the president of Opportunity Village’s board of directors, says that while there is no limit on the amount of time someone can stay at Opportunity Village, residents are actively encouraged to continuously work on their “exit plans.” The village organizers don’t have statistics about how many people have successfully transitioned out, but Bryant can rattle off several names of those who have moved on, either by getting into Section 8 housing, finishing degree programs, or moving in with relatives.
For such a grassroots, loosely organized effort, it is somewhat surprising that Opportunity Village was able to take root in Eugene at all, much less thrive. Why, in particular, were Eugene’s politicians willing to “find a way” to do it, as Heben put it, even if that meant bending some laws? Homelessness is a pervasive issue nationwide, and while some other cities have established similar “tiny home” villages—most notably Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington—the vast majority of cities have not embraced this model.
One answer is not so pretty: Opportunity Village is located in a traditionally low-income area, by railroad tracks and industrial buildings away from the center of town. (Opportunity Village organizers received a conditional use permit from the city to build on a lot that was zoned for industrial use.) Initially, Opportunity Village organizers proposed a site nearby an elementary school in a more populated area of town. Wisth shakes his head remembering the public outcry. “I’m surprised the activists made it out of that meeting alive,” he recalls.
But Eugene is a uniquely engaged community with a history of progressive politics. And in part, city councilmember Claire Syrett—whose district includes Opportunity Village—credits colleague councilmember Greg Evans with opening her eyes to the necessity of taking action. Evans shared a story about a close family friend who, because of a back injury and family problems, faced homelessness. Instead of letting her sleep in her car, Evans and his wife took their friend and her teenage son into their home for two years. “Homelessness isn’t about strangers anymore. Homelessness is about people you know,” Evans told the council.
Evans acknowledges that Eugene may be more invested in creatively supporting its homeless population than other cities, but says that the problem is so dire—both locally and nationally—that no congratulations are in order.
“All we have done [in Eugene] is put a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound,” he says. “Nobody deserves to be patted on the back—except ... we are trying.”