Opportunity Village Eugene: Pioneering New Solutions for the (Formerly) Homeless

Opportunity Village Eugene: Pioneering New Solutions for the (Formerly) Homeless

Opportunity Village Eugene

Opportunity Village Eugene is Eugene, Oregon’s newest intentional community. In less than three months, in late summer and fall of 2013, for less than $60,000, it went from an empty public works parking lot to a village housing 30 people. There have been many players, major and minor, male and female, straight and gay; organizers, volunteers, and villagers themselves. It is a self-governing village, with oversight and veto power over Village Council decisions by the board of the nonprofit organization Opportunity Village Eugene, which is chaired by Dan Bryant, minister of the First Congregational Church downtown.

Opportunity Village (www.opportunityvillageeugene.org) is governed by the Village Manual and its Village Agreements (www.opportunityvillageeugene.org/p/community-agreement.html). The Village Manual is an improved version of similar documents written by the residents of other homeless camps, like Dignity Village and Right to Dream Two in Portland, Oregon. It is authored by Andy Heben, who is also the urban designer of Opportunity Village.

Nine Conestoga Huts, insulated vinyl-sheathed shelters made from a combination of reused and new materials, were built in the village by Community Supported Shelters (communitysupportedshelters.org). I have designed, and built with the help of many others, all 18 of the solid-walled buildings in the village, including dwellings, a bath house, a kitchen, a front office, and also an outdoor grill. Like the Village Manual, the Backyard Bungalows (hebenaj.wix.com/backyardbungalows) we’ve built are improved versions of the dwellings erected by residents of other homeless villages. They are modular designs, composed of panels that are constructed in the shop and assembled on site in big work parties.

In July I submitted four of these prototypes, all under 100 square feet, with interchangeable wall and roof systems, to the city of Eugene and the state of Oregon for pre-approval to house the homeless. All four were accepted without any alterations. I now have nearly a dozen prototypes that have passed inspection by the city.

Ted Drummond, a longtime leader in the First Christian Church’s annual house-building Mission to Mexico, erected a heated 30-foot yurt for the villagers just days before the early-December snows came. Andy, Ted, and I are partners in the micro-housing business I founded in 2012, called Backyard Bungalows. Our mission is to build Affordable Villages, after the model of Opportunity Village.

When the city of Eugene broke up the Occupy camp in December of 2011, they promised to give the homeless another piece of land. Dan Bryant, a minister who wears a leather jacket and drives a motorcycle, Jean Stacey, a fiery lesbian advocate for the homeless, and Andy Heben, a young urban designer who wrote his thesis on homeless camps around the country which he visited, went around touting the idea of Opportunity Village.

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I was working at the time with Erik de Buhr, finishing up one of my Bungalow designs for Jerry and Janet Russell, who have given endlessly to the communities movement in this region. We were also working on the Conestoga Hut, a design that Erik and his partner Fay Carter created in a moment of need at the Occupy camp. At the December 2012 open forum Eugene city council meeting, on the heels of an enraged speech by Jean Stacey, who was camped out with SLEEPS near a Conestoga Hut we had set up earlier in the day, I made a proposal to the city council. I proposed that the Conestoga Hut be permitted as a vehicle in the St. Vincent de Paul car camper program, where homeless people can sleep in their cars in business and church parking lots. Though the city attorney had said that this ordinance would take two months to expand, the council did so in three days. That night they also approved the site for Opportunity Village.

In the following days the Conestoga Hut got a lot of press and Erik and I had a divergence of opinion. While Erik and Fay wanted to start their own nonprofit professional organization independent of Opportunity Village, called Community Supported Shelters, with the hopes of becoming the village’s main housing provider and building Opportunity Village almost entirely out of Conestoga Huts, I wanted to work with Opportunity Village, and to build a village of two dozen micro-houses each of which looked unique—in the process creating a prototype for an affordable village. So I went to an Opportunity Village steering committee meeting.

At this first meeting the group was ecstatic. On the heels of a solid year of pleading with the city to provide the piece of land that they had promised, they were talking of the great popularity they would have, of the micro-businesses they would incubate, of the Academy they would set up. Playing devil’s advocate, I mentioned that they had no villagers, no approved structures other than the Conestoga Hut, and no site plan. I proposed that they set up a core group of villagers, and begin orienting them in the philosophy, agreements, and rules of the Village Manual, so that a village culture would be in place before the village itself opened.

Brent Was, father at the Church of the Resurrection, took the lead in this process, and Andy and Ann and several volunteers dove into the paperwork. We began the application and intake process almost immediately. A particular focus was placed on vetting couples and single women, so that there would be a strong female presence in the village. This has proved invaluable, as women have come to dominate both the governance and administrative responsibilities of the village.

At this point I began working with Andy Heben. In addition to producing sketch-ups for my prototypes, working on the site plan, and hammering out the operating agreement with the city, Andy worked tirelessly writing and rewriting the Village Manual, based on the ongoing input of many well-meaning contributors, myself included. It is a brilliant document. I made dozens of copies, and handed them out to everyone. It is a brief, clear set of agreements and rules villagers must understand and agree to before joining the village. Based on simple majority and occasionally two-thirds majority vote at the village meetings, it uses simple clear language that can be interpreted but cannot be corrupted by the board or by the villagers. We read it out loud line by line during our biweekly orientations, with open discussion.

Of particular importance was the village site plan. Despite the difficulties it entailed, Andy avoided orienting the Bungalows and Conestogas in a grid, instead orchestrating them in a series of graceful circular courtyards that maximize a feeling of openness on the small site. By orienting four distinct roof systems thoughtfully, and placing the generous used doors and windows optimally for both light and privacy, we created a village that appears to have grown organically. Each Bungalow is trimmed, painted, and finished individually by its owner. There are distinctly masculine and feminine structures. The most popular prototypes seem to be the Lean To, the Club House, and Dianne’s Love Shack, with its purple cornice and black gargoyles.

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It’s long after supper. I sit with Craig and Randy in the yurt. The flickering light and steady hiss of the pellet stove fill the large, dim space. Chairs and fold-up tables, a coffee pot, and donated food in plastic bags are neatly arranged along the walls. The newest villager, Mandy, drifts by and says hi. Terry comes in and sets up her laptop.

Craig is a quiet, confident hippie, with a bandana over his forehead. He is a father, and a natural leader in the village. “How come no one’s in here?,” he asks.

Because it’s not below 34 degrees,” Randy replies, “so no one thought that they’d be allowed to sleep in here tonight.”

The village is full of rules, but they are good rules. The villagers seem to need them. People do file unwarranted complaints, but it’s not something the board worries about. It takes time for the villagers to settle in and learn a different way than the Eugene Mission, where a lot of applicants come from. Actually, Craig and I agree, things are going really well. Ernie and Katie and Jones and Matt all have jobs, and two other people just found work too. 

How much more time,” I ask Craig “do you have on the Village Council?”

Two weeks.” He smiles serenely.

So far only one person has finished out their three-month term. The only man on the five-person Council, Craig has spoken of stepping down, but the Council has pleaded for him to stay, saying that they need his masculine presence. Craig presented with me at the Central Lutheran Church adult education program recently, answering questions for a half-hour. The Lutherans have donated thousands of dollars worth of materials and thousands of work hours in the shop. They, and Dan Hill of Arbor South, who donated $15,000 worth of materials, were the backbone that allowed us to build Opportunity Village.

Some people on the board think that it’s ridiculous that so few Council members finish out their terms.”

What’s ridiculous about that?” Craig asks. “It’s not like anyone is getting kicked out of the village. It’s a clear sign of the health of the democratic process.”

With the stress of a continual influx of new people—living in tents during at least part of their probationary period—and the rest of the village living in unheated Bungalows and Conestogas, Village Councilors have to be steady. When someone is not, they get voted off. No hard feelings.

The women are much more involved in the administration and governance tasks, and the men are more involved in construction—roofing and finishing the Bungalows. Most of the cooking has been implemented by the women, with much of the infrastructure work being done by their men.”

Why does the Village Council need a male presence? In order to feel credible in the eyes of the male villagers?”

Probably.”

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Andy, Joline, and I, along with a half dozen villagers, sit before the warm flames of the fireplace at Papa’s Pizza Parlor, eating taco pizza and drinking dark beer at a fundraiser for the village. Every villager needs to come up with $30 a month towards utilities. There is no drinking within 500 feet of the gate but we are farther away than that.

To my left is Anton, a working cobbler, who has repaired two pairs of my shoes and refuses to be paid. He is Greek, so I don’t push it. His wife, Fredricka Maximillia Sanchez, a tall beautiful woman, talks of her four daughters, and the honorable lives they lead. Hal, across the table, is a computer programmer. Louis sits to my right, a crafter of wooden inlaid jewelry, who is designing a micro-business that can employ villagers doing piecework. Carl and Dianne have finished out their Bungalows with architectural details and color schemes that we can use as models for regular paying clients. Mark Hubble is one of the original founders of the village.

Ron and Katherine Griffith, who were married at the village, speak of their gender roles:

It’s a reverse relationship,” Katherine says, in her North Carolina accent, “and it always has been, ever since Ron tore his ACL. I work, and he does the cooking and cleaning. I don’t care if I never wash another dish in my life.”

In the last village meeting, in the interests of keeping peace in the community, Richard James and Louis volunteered to wash all the unwashed dishes.

They make sure we get stuff done,” Ron says.

All the villagers are required to do eight to 10 hours a week staffing the front desk, cooking, cleaning, doing paperwork, and/or roofing, insulating, and finishing the Bungalows. Katherine does more than her share, on and off the Village Council.

I do the electronics, and home improvements. A lot of times when the women try to do the heavier physical labor the men step in and say: ‘Let me do that.’ I don’t care; I let them. Break your back. I don’t feel threatened by it. I don’t have to do that stuff. If someone wants to do the hard work let them do it.”

Mark Hubble, who was the public figure of homelessness at the presentation Dan and he and I gave to the American Institute of Architects, who was the lead speaker at the opening of Opportunity Village, who has been the subject of several articles, and who resigned from the Village Council, shakes his head.

When we started out it was just a dozen of us, and I liked to take care of my girls. Now everything is different. It’s an intentional community.”

I don’t think this is an intentional community “ Hal chimes in. Hal was voted off the Village Council.

If this were an intentional community, it would be more intentional about who it let in. Someone else here is footing the bill. We’re bringing in outside labor, rather than doing the work ourselves. This is a transitional homeless camp, nothing more.”

Craig disagrees: “This is still an intentional community. It’s just a different intention. The intention is shelter. What comes through is something very much like the intention of food—the cycle of sowing and growing and harvesting and feasting. This act of building, of cultivating shelter for ourselves and others, builds community like you wouldn’t believe. Even those who participate in only part of the cycle still go away with a greater sense of community. The builders of this village are sowing the seeds for another village. The villagers themselves will be the mentors, the seeds for the creation of the next community.”

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On December 9th, one year after my first presentation at the open forum city council meeting, I spoke again before the mayor and city councilors of Eugene. The homeless of Whoville, a big tent camp jammed in beside the overpass next to the courthouse, threatened with being disbanded in the snow, spoke first. Then Jean Stacey made another impassioned plea. I offered a solution. I spoke of the Conestoga Huts I advocated for last year, now permitted and sheltering 20 people. I spoke of the Backyard Bunglows in Opportunity Village, permitted and housing 20 people. All had come at no cost to the city, state, or federal government. Then I said that we could easily build a second Opportunity Village. The next day an anonymous donor gave $25,000 to Opportunity Village, restricted for the purposes of building a second Opportunity Village, as a challenge grant for $25,000 more. Someone also gave another $12,000 to finish this first village. So far we have spent around $70,000 on Opportunity Village.

● ● ●

The first legal urban camping site in Eugene is about to open across the street from us, run by Erik de Buhr and Community Supported Shelters. Ted and I are visiting Erik and a helper, when Mark Hubble comes up as the welcome party, offering blankets and food for the first residents. He has applied for the job of one of the five property managers who get Conestogas at the 15-person site, which is fenced, monitored, and secure. Mark is the seed of a new village.

Hal says it’s time to go home, and leaves. I go to get another beer. When I get back they are playing stupid human tricks. One game, called “Mad Dog,” involves holding a plastic ruler with an open box of Tic Tacs taped to either end, clamped in your mouth. You shake your head up and down, and whoever spills the most Tic Tacs wins. Another involves stacking as many Ding Dongs as you can on your forehead. First Joline, with five, and then Louis, with six, are in the lead. Then Andy steps up. First he tries the trick while sitting, but we call foul. Then he arranges all the Ding Dongs on the table first, so they will best fit, and then mashes them down on his forehead, to howls of protest. But he wins in the end, by bending the rules.

In a way Opportunity Village itself is bending the rules. But this is because the rules need to be bent. We have to make sure that we adhere to the intention, and not the letter of the law. The city and the neighborhoods do not want shantytowns. They decrease property values and increase disease. But a nice clean orderly village with rules and sound governance? At $2,500 a person in direct set-up costs? Well, that’s hard to beat. The big concern is governance. And that is a big concern. An Opportunity Village board member needs to be at every village meeting. A half dozen people have been kicked out so far by the villagers, with good cause. This is a good thing.

I vetted the first people. Some, I thought, were never going to make it. But it’s amazing to see the spirit with which people lift themselves up. The truth is, if you give a homeless person a home then they’re no longer homeless. This is the opportunity of Opportunity Village.

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One Response to Opportunity Village Eugene: Pioneering New Solutions for the (Formerly) Homeless

  1. horsley says:

    Hi Alex,

    I love what you’re doing there in Eugene. I’m a young British adventurer in the art of learning and I’m coming to the west coast of the US this summer. I’d love to come and visit you and your project up in Oregon – do you think that might be possible in late September or early October?

    I’m currently doing a year of research into intentional communities/communal living projects and so far have visited a handful of places in the UK and Europe. I’m in the process of blogging my experiences, mainly to help me navigate my own thoughts and discoveries.

    Have a read if you like: http://alliwantforchristmasisanewworld.wordpress.com/

    Anyway, look forward to hearing from you,

    Rich

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