In My Backyard
What Does It Take for a Neighborhood to
Invite 14 Homeless Women to Move In?
by Zach Putnam
My wife and I moved to the Kenton neighborhood in 2009, largely because we could afford to buy a home here. Traditionally a working-class residential area on the edge of North Portland's industrial zones, Kenton is most famous for its 31-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue.
Like many parts of Portland, Kenton has recently experienced an economic resurgence. Many small older houses have been demolished to make way for much larger new ones. I don't think we could afford to buy a home in Kenton today.
"We've seen property values increase here dramatically," says Kenton Neighborhood Association Chair Tyler Roppe, "and as a result of that you've seen a lot of people forced out of their homes via rent increases."
Homelessness has recently become more visible all over the city. In the last few years, I began to see decaying RVs and cars filled with clothing and boxes parked for weeks along the edges of Kenton Park. One chilly morning while walking my dog, I saw the elderly couple who used to live in the rental house across the street from us emerge groggily from their fogged-up car, parked just blocks from their old home.
National and local statistics confirm that homelessness is on the rise. The latest official count by the local Joint Office of Homeless Services says that over 4,000 Portlanders are experiencing some form of homelessness on a given night. Over 1,500 of those without homes are women. In 2015 a state of emergency on housing and homelessness was declared which eased the city's zoning restrictions for creating new shelter spaces and has allowed city leaders, advocates, and houseless people themselves to experiment with new solutions.
Last December, the city of Portland and a collection of community agencies and activists approached the Kenton Neighborhood Association with an unusual proposal. They wanted to convert an empty lot, right across the street from Kenton's cherished park, into a village of tiny houses for 14 formerly homeless women. Kentonites like myself had many questions. Below is my attempt to answer them.
I met Jewell Ramirez at the open house event on the day the Kenton Women's Village first opened. She was one of the first women to move in. Jewell came to Portland in 1994. She raised her children here and has earned two degrees from Portland State University. Since separating from her husband, she's been houseless for most of the last ten years. Without the village, she says, she "would still be out there on the streets."
Jewell's story made it clear to me why there's a need for new solutions to Portland's housing crisis. But still I was left wondering how this seemingly radical idea had made its way to my quiet little neighborhood.
I learned that a group called the Village Coalition had been working with the city and other local advocates and organizations for months to develop a proposal for a homeless women's village. Inspired by local villages that had formed organically in the past, like Dignity Village and Hazelnut Grove, the Village Coalition was formed with the mission of replicating the village model to shelter more houseless Portlanders, especially those who would prefer not to live in traditional shelter spaces.
The network of organizations involved in creating the Kenton Women's Village is somewhat dizzying. I found the chart below, created by Portland State University's Center for Public Interest Design (CPID), helped to make the connections more clear.
After a long search, a city-owned vacant lot (sometimes known locally as the Mattress Dump) was identified in Kenton as a good potential site for a planned village project, partially because of its proximity to public transportation and commercial services. Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission) has future plans for permanent affordable housing on the Argyle Street lot, so the women's village was always proposed as a temporary installation.
Kenton Women's Village in the foreground with Kenton Park and the neighborhood beyond. Downtown Portland is on the horizon.
My neighbors' reactions to the village proposal were mixed, and discussion was sometimes heated, both on social media and at neighborhood association meetings. Some neighbors voiced concerns about sanitation, crime and safety.
Excerpt from the Kenton Neighborhood Association's Facebook page.
For months, the neighborhood association held a series of meetings to hear details from the project organizers and gather input from Kenton residents. Neighborhood feedback led Catholic Charities to add a second site manager and a night security guard to their operating budget for the village.
In March the neighborhood held a vote to decide whether it would approve the proposal as a one-year pilot project. After a final round of presentations in front of a packed house, neighbors in attendance voted 178-75 in favor of creating the Kenton Women's Village. In June, the pods were moved to Kenton. PSU students and community volunteers converted the gravel lot into a landscaped village just days before the 14 new residents moved in.
Catholic Charities reported in November that three women had already transitioned from the village to permanent housing and six more were on track to move before the end of the year.
In December, Jewell Ramirez moved from the village to her own apartment.
Jewell Ramirez (center) and Sheila Mason talking at the village's open house event in June. Todd Ferry is in the background.
Long before the city approached Kenton with the Women's Village proposal, the 14 "sleeping pods" were designed and built by volunteer members of the Partners on Dwelling (POD) Initiative. Designers were given a set of requirements to meet city codes and make the pods easy to transport. Architecture firms from around the city along with students and faculty at PSU's Center for Public Interest Design contributed designs, materials and labor to take the pods from idea to reality.
In addition to the sleeping pods, the village includes community garden plots as well as shared kitchen and bathroom facilities which were custom built into shipping containers so they can easily be moved to a new location. At the end of the one-year pilot period, the plan is for the village to be relocated to another lot somewhere in Portland.
Explore the village and pods in the virtual tour below. Click and drag on the 360 images or map to explore the village and sleeping pod interiors. Scroll to zoom. Click the circles to jump to other viewpoints and click the white "i" icons to learn more about the designs and features of these 14 tiny homes. 360 photography by Rachel Bracker and 360 Labs.
More Info and Resources
There's a lot more to know about the Kenton Women's Village, the village movement, and homelessness in Portland. Check out these links to find out more:
Copyright 2017 by Zach Putnam