HOMELESSNESS in Portland is at a crisis point. At last count, an estimated 3,800 people in Multnomah County were homeless and thousands more were living in unsafe or unstable conditions. For women, being homeless comes with greater risks of sexual assault or other violence.
Soon 14 previously homeless women in the Kenton neighborhood of North Portland will begin to rebuild their lives after months or years of living on the street. Their new home is the Kenton Women’s Village, a community made up of tiny “sleeping pods.” When they lay their heads down at night, they will do so in their own beds, in their own cozy little homes, complete with locking front doors, bathroom facilities and a kitchen nearby, and a community of peers surrounding them.
The Kenton Women’s Village is the product of nearly a year’s worth of efforts by community groups under the organizing force of PSU’s Center for Public Interest Design (CPID) in the School of Architecture.
In 2016, Village Coalition, a group of homeless advocates, local activists and people who have experienced homelessness, came together with CPID in response to the state of emergency on homelessness declared by the city of Portland. They asked themselves, “How can architecture and design help?” The Partners on Dwelling (POD) Initiative was born.
“We knew what we didn’t want: impersonal, warehouse-style shelters that treated houseless people like cattle. Instead, our goal was to create personal, well-designed, safe structures that would be welcomed by neighbors and residents alike,” says Todd Ferry, a CPID research associate who helped spearhead the project.
He says the group was inspired by the recent successes of homeless communities such as Portland’s Hazelnut Grove and Dignity Village, where residents worked together to build small structures to help them transition out of tents and create a shared community.
FOR THE POD Initiative, the first major step was to hold a brainstorming session to generate design solutions. More than 100 architects, designers and community members, including dozens of PSU architecture alumni, showed up. They listened to the needs of homeless individuals and housing advocates, and spent the day generating a plethora of “sleeping pod” designs, which they presented to the group.
The architects embraced the project, and a majority signed up to form professional design-build teams, many of which were sponsored by their architecture firms, including SERA, LRS, Holst, S|EA, Mackenzie, Communitecture and others. Under Ferry’s leadership, a PSU senior undergraduate architecture studio class formed one of the 14 teams, and CPID students and faculty fellows formed another.
The POD Initiative challenged each team to thoughtfully design and build a full-scale, maximum 8-by-12-foot prototype of a sleeping pod that would be safe, warm and structurally sound. Each pod had to include a lockable door and at least one operable window, and meet specifications to make them portable and replicable. The designs also needed to help change the prevailing public perception of homeless populations—ideally shifting the image of a homeless person to that of a valued, competent, human being deserving of the same comforts and dignity that the rest of us expect.
Charlie Hales, then mayor of Portland, threw his support and funding behind the project. The city donated $2,000 per pod to cover the cost of materials and other logistics, and agreed to take custody of the pods in order to ensure that they would be put to use when completed.
By December 2016, the pods were ready. The result was a full-scale exhibition of all 14 unique tiny dwelling units in the Pacific Northwest College of Art parking lot in Northwest Portland. This gave the public, as well as homeless community members, a chance to view the structures and provide feedback.
MEANWHILE, the biggest challenge loomed: Where would the pods be used? Could they form a village for people in need of shelter?
Eventually, an empty lot in the Kenton neighborhood was identified as a possibility. Owned by the Portland Development Commission, close to public transportation and near a park, the spot seemed ideal.
A focus group of women residents of the Hazelnut Grove community was formed to provide guidance on the design of the village—from the policies (Should overnight guests be allowed? The group said no, due to security concerns) to the layout of the site (a community garden was favored), to how to make the site safe.
As part of a graduate architecture studio class led by CPID Director Sergio Palleroni with Ferry’s support, student Alesha Hase attended these meetings so she could absorb the group’s wishes and translate them back to her fellow students, who were working on design proposals for the village site.
“One of the main topics we talked about was safety, and how (homeless women) stay safe at night. They had lots of stories about getting attacked, and lots of ideas for policies to try to keep everyone safe,” says Hase.
“It was really powerful to hear how important having a house is, not only for safety, but for being able to build social connections with other people.”
UNLIKE HAZELNUT Grove and Dignity Village, which formed organically and later entered into agreements with city agencies, this tiny community’s infrastructure, policies and social services will be set up from the start, including a vote of support by the Kenton neighbors. Getting the structures in place has been a true community effort, with critical commitments of expertise, services and funding coming from both public and private entities.
CPID students and faculty designed the kitchen, storage and bathing facilities, expertly fitting appliances and fixtures into shipping containers, with adjacent communal dining areas. The city is paying for the installation of electricity on-site to power cooking, bathing and exterior lighting. Catlin Gabel high school students created portable solar-powered electrical outlets (the “JuiceBox”), so each resident can plug in a phone, light or laptop in her pod.
Catholic Charities is the village’s on-site service provider, providing a full-time staff person to address emergencies, make sure the facilities are running properly, and help coordinate the residents’ connections to case workers. The Kenton Neighborhood Association will coordinate with local residents to help with the community garden and organizing donations of needed items. The Joint Office of Homeless Services, operated by the city and Multnomah County, is helping to tie all of these elements together, working to ensure that the village isn’t a dead end for the residents, but provides a realistic path out of homelessness.
Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, spoke about how the success of the endeavor will be measured. “Is it a welcoming and safe and supportive environment for people while they are there? Does it give them the stability that they need to work toward getting out of homelessness altogether and back into housing?”
Jolin says he expects it will work well and that the women who are staying there will benefit from the community that’s created.
“I think the sense of ownership that they have over the space will translate into whatever work they need to do to move back into more permanent housing,” he says.
“It’s been exciting to get to know some of the work that’s going on at Portland State and to see how students can contribute to solutions for people experiencing homelessness,” he adds. “It is the best of what you can do when you pull people together around a shared goal.”
Author: Karen O’Donnell Stein is communications, marketing and recruitment administrator in the PSU School of Architecture.
Fourteen unique tiny dwelling units for the homeless were designed and built by Portland teams. Two of those teams were from Portland State and included (left to right) architecture graduate Tomasz Low, faculty member Todd Ferry and current student Olivia Snell.
This story is featured in the Summer 2017 edition of the Portland State University Magazine https://www.pdx.edu/magazine/news/shelter-homeless