BY: TYLER FYFE
It’s 5:30pm on a Friday and on the sidewalk a line is starting to build outside of the Good Shepherd Centre. Frayed blue tarps clipped to backpacks, and calloused hands clutch soggy cardboard with bleeding marker ink. The men in line know that if they aren’t lucky enough to win the lottery system for one of the 91 barrack-style bunk beds, they’ll be sleeping in the rain.
Just south of the border, in the heart of the progressive Pacific Northwest, Oregon is taking an innovative approach to housing the homeless—one that doesn’t require kicking them back to the curb at 7:30am every morning.
Tiny house villages are popping up along the West Coast as a way to deal with a growing problem of local homelessness.
At any given night extremely conservative stats from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development state there are 610,042 humans sleeping in bus stops, abandoned buildings, makeshift campsites, motels, inside parked cars, or in public spaces.
With a temperate climate, coastal cities are an attractive option for anyone looking to collapse their life into a travel bag or truck bed and plant roots somewhere new. A 2014 study found that the West Coast accounts for more than 25 percent of the country’s homeless population.
The movement began in 2001, when a tent city arose in Portland to protest the treatment of homeless people. Dubbed Dignity Village, the tent city was relocated to the outskirts of Portland, and in 2003 tiny houses were erected to replace the tents, reports The Guardian.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found in its latest count that there are nearly 4,000 people living without shelter, although Oregonlive estimates that the actual number could be as high as four times that.
While hot meals and daily board by shelters and missions act like a social Band-Aid, they do little to stop new skin from breaking. Unemployment is down nationwide (now at 5.6%), including the state of Oregon (now at 6.7%), but still housing prices continue to rise above what many can manage. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 7 million more affordable housing units are needed to meet demand nationwide.
In Portland, the lowest rent starts at $700 and it is estimated that 23,000 more affordable housing units are needed. What this means, is that the financially paralyzed are expected to get out of a 20-foot hole, with a 5-foot stepladder.
At Dignity Village, residents pay rent of $200 a month, $25 for utilities and build equity in their cottages over time.
The community runs on a self-governed system, allowing residents to democratically participate in decision making, while an annually elected council tables some decisions.
In 1996, Clinton signed The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law, gutting the welfare system, as it was known. The law cut government assistance substantially, in favour of injecting steroids into America’s work ethic. What resulted was a massive surge of poverty.
At the same time, houses continued to swell larger and larger in size, even though the size of family units continued to shrink. With home ownership still standing as a cornerstone of American achievement, for a variety of reasons, like student debt, people began to lose their grip.
The concept borrows from the Tiny House Movement, believing that McMansions are unnecessary financial weight, and smaller space can breed a bigger life.
Opportunity Village is one of the many West Coast communities that has followed the example of Dignity. At Opportunity, residents build their own cottages.
Cottages cost “about $3,300” to build. This is a pittance compared to the $31,065 spent annually per homeless person on jail-stays and hospital room visits, according to The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
According to a longform Buzzfeed article, Mitch Grubic, now a resident of Dignity Village, bought a house after receiving inheritance when his father died. When the recession hit, he lost his job and ended up homeless.
Due to the popularized idea of the culture of poverty, a theory now labeled by experts as being a complete social myth, many people are still lagging behind the times taking the blame the victim stance. The truth is that from escaping an abusive living situation, to mental instability, to veterans, to drug addiction, to job loss, the reasons that people end up on the streets are so diverse that it’s impossible to generalize.
Drug and alcohol use are prohibited, although marijuana is allowed on site. A spokesman from the Portland Police Bureau said “I can’t remember the last time police were called to Dignity Village.”
While this is not the solution to homelessness, it is one solution—one that is both economically and environmentally friendly. It helps tackle the stigma that can actually perpetuate homelessness by offering independence, privacy and dignity.
Photography by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed