Progress has been made in recent years in decreasing homelessness, especially among veterans. But the spiraling cost of housing still leaves many people with few affordable options.
Now, inspired by the success of similar projects in the Pacific Northwest, a group in Medford is building a tiny-house village that offers hope of breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
It’s damp and chilly but almost sunny as about a hundred people gather to watch the first ceremonial shovels-full of dirt get turned over on a narrow sliver of grass west of downtown Medford. As the dignitaries finish their speeches, trucks and heavy equipment gear up to prepare the site for 14 bare-bones housing units. The project will be called Hope Village.
Amidst the bustle, Heather Everett beams the smile of someone who’s pulled off a plan despite heavy odds.
“It’s amazing to finally get to this point, after three years of research and development, to finally get to have a piece of property and to have approval from the city is a milestone,” she says.
Everett is Administrative Director at Rogue Retreat, a non-profit that provides housing and life-skills support for homeless people in the Rogue Valley. She and a group of volunteers have modeled Hope Village on similar projects in the region, including Quixote Village in Olympia and Opportunity Village in Eugene.
Those projects and others use tiny houses with shared sanitary and kitchen facilities as transitional housing for homeless folks, many of whom have been illegally camping in parks and other public spaces.
Michael LaConte is part of the organizing group. He’s also going to be one of the first homeless people to take up residence in Hope Village. I ask La Conte what difference that’s going to make in his life.
“The main difference it’s going to make right now, is a safe place for me to lock up my things,” LaConte says. “I don’t have to worry about anybody coming into my camp and raiding it, I don’t have to worry about the police coming in and telling me I can’t be there.”
LaConte stands surveying the site of his soon-to-be new home with his companion, Khaleesi, a small black lab. He says even though the tiny houses will be only 80 square feet, simply having a secure, private space will be huge.
“Yeah, definitely,” he smiles. “Having a key to my own place like that is a definite step up from what I have now.”
Urban planner Andrew Heben says people with homes often don’t appreciate how powerful the simple act of locking your own door can be.
“Oftentimes, people experiencing homelessness are forced to live their entire lives in the public realm, so I think that’s a pretty big thing,” he says.
Heben is author of the book “Tent City Urbanism.” He’s also a co-founder of Opportunity Village in Eugene. He says tiny-house villages – joined with a co-operative self-governance program – are a viable alternative to the traditional top-down shelter model of dealing with homelessness.
“It’s based on involving the people that live there in making decisions about the way that their community is operated and maintained.”
Residents in these projects are expected to take active part in sanitation, security and kitchen duties, as well as participating in cooperative decision-making. Given the opportunity and some support, Heben says, homeless people have proven they will rise to meet those responsibilities.
And, he adds, it’s relatively cheap.
“Our Opportunity Village project here in Eugene operates for five dollars per person per night,” he says.
Until funding is available for permanent housing for everyone who needs it, Heben says, intermediate solutions such as tiny-house villages will fill an otherwise unaddressed need.
Will Hope Village spark similar projects elsewhere in southern Oregon? Leigh Madsen hopes so. Madsen heads a non-profit homeless service agency in nearby Ashland.
“Every city around us has been taking actions on how to solve the homeless situation,” Madsen says. “The fact that it’s happening here in Medford now means that everybody in the Rogue Valley, including the City of Ashland, where I live and serve, has to take notice.”
The concept of tiny-house villages as an approach to homelessness is catching on beyond the Northwest. Currently there are villages in Los Angeles, Dallas, Nashville, Syracuse and a growing number of other communities around the country.
The combination of relatively low cost -- plus an organizing structure that supports the dignity and personal growth of the residents – is proving its appeal as communities continue to struggle with the complex issues surrounding homelessness.