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Portland experimenting with model that advocates say helps residents reconnect and rebuild their lives

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: ADAM WICKHAM - Bob Brimmer says that helping to build Hazelnut Grove, where he now lives with his dog, Scipio, gave him a sense of purpose that helped him clean up his act.Helping to build the homeless village where he lives has given Bob Brimmer's life focus, he says.

More than that, living there has helped him heal from a tough childhood that included stays in homeless shelters and in subsidized housing in upstate New York.

"My dad died when I was in ninth grade from a drug-induced heart attack, and then my mom lived in Section 8 housing," says Brimmer, who has an associate's degree in math and science.

Before Brimmer came to the West Coast he was "couch surfing" with friends, but they lost their apartments, so he used his last tax return to buy a three-day Greyhound ticket to Portland. He had no place to stay when he got here.

"When I first came out here, I kind of fell into that trap of just getting drunk every night," the 23-year-old says. "But once you start relying on that, eventually the depressing effect kicks in."

Enter Joe Bennie, a board member and former resident of Hazelnut Grove, a homeless village in North Portland's Overlook neighborhood that was founded in 2015 as a group of tents. Bennie, who has construction industry experience, taught Brimmer tricks of the trade while building the village, which has developed into a cluster of 16 or so tiny houses, with a bathhouse and a tiny library filled with several hundred books.

Brimmer lives in a bunkhouse at the north end, woven into the woods alongside North Greeley Avenue. The village's spine is a rickety, raised plank walkway that residents jokingly call the "Raised Walkway of Death," or "Captain Jack Sparrow's Flight." One disabled resident who is a veteran travels the precarious route in her electric wheelchair, a feat that is astonishing — and scary — to watch.

"If it weren't for Hazelnut Grove," Brimmer says, "I'm pretty sure I would have went the wino route of homelessness, to be honest."

On June 19, officials announced the number of men, women and children living in shelters and on the streets in Multnomah County has jumped by nearly 10 percent over the past two years. In the face of this continuing crisis, one unconventional housing solution appears to be gaining followers — the homeless village.

A social support system

Put simply, a homeless village is a group of houseless people living together and sharing self-governance, trash, water and toilet service, and a social support system. Portland is near the fore of the movement, led by the grassroots group the Village Coalition, and is home to what is probably the country's oldest continuously sited homeless village, Dignity Village, founded in 2000.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: ADAM WICKHAM - Founded as a tent camp in 2015, Hazelnut Grove now features a cluster of hand-made tiny houses nestled against I-5, in North Portland's Overlook neighborhood.Three others followed: Hazelnut Grove, Right 2 Dream Too, which recently moved from Old Town to a parking lot near the Moda Center, and Kenton Women's Village, Portland's newest and most mainstream version, which opened with public and neighborhood backing in North Portland's Kenton neighborhood on June 10.

Homeless villages don't work miracles, supporters acknowledge, but they do give chronically homeless residents a secure place to sleep and keys to healing that shelters and transitional housing programs can't always match.

For a homeless person who struggles just to find a safe, legal place to sleep, a locking door may be its most basic single element. It means possessions won't get stolen if there's an appointment. Sleep is possible without threat of physical or sexual assault.

Such security is a key feature of Kenton's 14 "sleeping pods," designed by architectural firms, shepherded by Portland State University's Center for Public Interest Design.

At Hazelnut Grove, the tents staked in 2015 are gone and "everyone is living behind a locked door," says Vahid Brown, housing policy coordinator for Clackamas County and Village Coalition steering committee member.

In June, 10 new sleeping pods, built by Benson High School students, were installed at Right 2 Dream Too's new location.

A lockable door is not a rental contract, or a mortgage. But houseless people say it's a huge step up from a sleeping bag or a sidewalk.

Most dwelling units at Portland's homeless villages are unsophisticated, made from donated materials. Still, they are much-loved, with personalized, artistic details. One Dignity Village tiny house being restored by Rick Proudfoot, the village's spokesman, had a wooden sculpture of a dragonfly above its door. Others have small porches, shaded windows, small places to sit.

People who know you

Focus on the physical aspects, and you might miss the most important thing about homeless villages, Brown says: social infrastructure.

"There's a secret sauce that the village movement is trying to get across," Brown says. "This isn't just about having a safe place to sleep. It's about the community that emerges within the village."

Forty-six percent of homeless adults live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dignity Village resident Scott Layman is one of them. He says Dignity Village provides a support system that helps him live with schizophrenia and support others struggling with mental illness.

In May, a tiny-house-size pile of charred plywood told a sad story near the north end of the community. Layman says the person who lived there left a candle unattended, defying a rule against open flames. His house was destroyed, and three adjacent houses were damaged, before villagers and firefighters extinguished the blaze. Later, during a village council meeting, the resident laughed about the episode.

The council put the man, whom Layman believes might have untreated mental illness, on a 90-day leave from the village.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: ADAM WICKHAM - Hazelnut Grove is clearly visible in the Overlook neighborhood. Advocates of the 'village' model say places like it offer homeless residents a social infrastructure lacking in shelters.Before he found Dignity, Layman was hearing voices, living in "zombie houses," and camping in the woods. "The village gave me a place to land, to get me going in the right direction," Layman says. "If I'd had to keep going I might not be with us right now."

Top local officials, including Multnomah County Board Chair Deborah Kafoury, have taken note of the village's peer support mechanisms.

"I've been more supportive of those organized villages as opposed to some of the camping that's springing up," Kafoury says. "Having some type of social contract, it's amazing. Having a support system around you is crucial to your staying on track."

Trauma is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Supporters say villages offer a community with whom isolated homeless people can reconnect.

"When you lose housing, a lot of your links to society are untethered," Brown explains. "The alienation just accumulates day after day, as you're treated and seen by the rest of the community as an outcast. Healing that rift requires more than just getting housing."

Moving forward

The Village Coalition, a grassroots group made up of village residents, formerly homeless individuals and their allies, thinks villages are part of the solution.

"Business as usual doesn't meet the scale of the problem," says Village Coalition steering committee chairman David Bikman.

Kenton Women's Village, which the Village Coalition was instrumental in planning, could become the feather in the movement's cap. It is Portland's first village developed as a partnership among activists, governments agencies, neighbors, architecture firms and a social service provider, Catholic Charities of Oregon.

It's too soon to assess the success of this "pilot" project and whether it can be replicated. But its political support, physical attributes and comparatively low cost — $175,000 is budgeted for the next fiscal year — give it broader appeal than Portland's other three villages.

At a June 9 media event, Catholic Charities Executive Director Richard Birkel said the Kenton Women's Village "may very well be the most creative application of what we know" in helping put homeless people on the path to permanent housing.

"There's so much good that will live on and carry on into the future," says Michael Cox, spokesman for Mayor Ted Wheeler.

As for the 14 women who were notified of their acceptance to the village, "Their reactions were crying, screaming, like 'I feel like I won the lottery,' " says Catholic Charities case manager Bernadette Stetz.

Their enthusiasm is shared by others who know the struggles of living on the streets, people such as former Hazelnut Grove resident Jaison Kirk.

"Villages are part of remembering who we are as humans," Kirk says.

Thacher Schmid is a freelance journalist.

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