Eugene's Collaborative Village
Originally published July 2014 by Andrew Heben as a chapter in:
By now, the Occupy movement has been all but forgotten by most. But in Eugene, Oregon, the protest sparked an inadvertent undertaking in the form of a self-managed, transitional housing community, known as Opportunity Village. The earliest roots of the village can be traced to the local Occupy camp formed in August of 2011. Like many cities, Eugene witnessed the emergence of a robust encampment with democratic assemblies, volunteer-run clinics, and makeshift kitchens serving hundreds of meals each day. But, also like many other cities, the informal settlement soon took on an unplanned dynamic—specifically, a safe and secure place to be for the city’s unsheltered population. Suddenly there were more than 100 otherwise homeless individuals, couples, and families living and interacting with a group of otherwise housed activists. The camp was relocated throughout the city on several occasions, but as time passed, more people came to take refuge in this new community—that is, until late December of 2011, when the camp was shut down shortly after a violent fight erupted on the site. Suddenly it seemed that the great experiment in a more democratic society was laid to rest once again.
But all was not lost. The events had succeeded in catalyzing public concern around confronting the issue of homelessness. The unhoused and housed had gotten to know each other, and the seeds that had been planted during the various democratic assemblies soon found light.
Growing a Village
Following the closure of the Occupy encampment, Eugene’s Mayor Kitty Piercy appointed a task force to identify “new and innovative solutions” for approaching homelessness. Known as the Opportunity Eugene Community Task Force on Homeless Solutions, the group incorporated a diverse range of citizens that included representatives from neighborhood associations, the local school district, non-profit agencies, the police department, and local business owners, as well as housed and unhoused representatives from the camp. After a series of meetings, the group put forth a list of recommendations in April 2012, with the number one recommendation being: “Direct city staff to work with community members to identify potential sites in order to establish a safe and secure place to be, opened by October 1, 2012, independently financed with oversight by a not-for-profit organization or agency.”
It was then that the seeds for a village began to germinate. While the task force did not come to consensus on a specific vision for this “place to be,” an advocate group—composed primarily of those inspired by what took place at the Occupy camp—continued to meet informally to ensure that this recommendation was in fact implemented. Known as the Homeless Solutions Committee, the group began to further develop a vision for this place to be, establishing the foundational root network for a self-governed, transitional housing village.
At this point I became regularly involved with the project. I had just moved to Eugene for a job a few months prior, and the coincidence of my arrival coinciding with energy growing around the very topic on which I had just completed my thesis appeared to be fate. As I became involved in these conversations, lessons learned from the local Occupy camps began to merge with much of the research on self-organized camps presented in my thesis project. The long-standing, sanctioned examples in Portland and Seattle became case studies from which to learn and grow, and St. Petersburg exemplified what we were trying to steer clear of. Early conversations focused around self-management, alternative micro-housing, relations with the surrounding community, and transcending from the negative connotations of a “camp” to the positive optimism of a “village”—an “Opportunity Village.” The strategies for getting this issue on the table are further discussed in Chapter 14, Advocating for a Village.
The Occupy camp largely operated under an ethos of unregulated autonomy, and therefore lacked any widely accepted rules or boundaries. This allowed people with malicious intent to prey on the community, inflating a negative impression of the camp in the surrounding community. In contrast, while Opportunity Village aimed to encourage individual autonomy in many ways, it also recognized the importance of enforced community agreements—as demonstrated by other self-organized camps—in order to maintain a certain quality of life internally and to establish trust externally. And while the Occupy camp accepted anyone and everyone, it was decided early on that members of Opportunity Village must be vetted and able to abide by a basic set of rules.
While the sanctioned communities in Seattle and Portland had 60 to 100 members, it was decided that Opportunity Village should have a smaller population of around 30 to 45. We felt that this would encourage a more direct means of decision-making while still maintaining the capacity to run a self-managed community. However, to more adequately address the scale of homelessness in our area, we decided that there should be a network of these small-scale villages.
Our initial proposal included four villages of 30 people each, but after receiving public input we scaled the effort back to a 30 unit pilot project. The plan called for micro-housing supported by a shared kitchen, gathering space, front office, and restrooms with showers. Oversight would be provided by a non-profit organization, and similar to existing examples, self-management would be employed to uphold basic rules prohibiting violence, stealing, and alcohol and drug use on site, while also encouraging tolerance and participation. It would be emphasized as transitional housing with a goal of moving residents to more permanent living situations and serving a larger population, but because everyone’s situation is unique, there would be no set limit to the duration of stay. Further details on the planning and design of Opportunity Village can be found in Chapter 15.
During a January 2013 city council meeting—after months of advocacy and planning—a motion was passed to “Authorize the city manager to take the steps necessary to locate a pilot project for a low-cost micro-housing project for homeless individuals at the city-owned North Garfield site for a period not to exceed October 1, 2014.” The steps to be taken by the city included: 1) selection of a non-profit to operate the pilot project, 2) enter into a lease agreement with that organization, and 3) consult with that organization as it prepares an application for a conditional use permit for the site. Furthermore, the lease was to include terms that required: 1) insurance to protect the city against liability, 2) the site to be fully restored by end of lease, 3) a nominal fee for leasing the site.129 By this point, our advocacy group had evolved into a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, known as Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE), which was selected to operate the project.
Similar to other sanctioned examples, the approved site was in an industrial area; however, the location was less isolated than others. Located within the Trainsong neighborhood, the site is one block from a bus stop and walking or biking distance to a wide variety of services. The site was once a trailer park that had since been repurposed for city vehicle storage. The two acre parcel was subdivided with the front acre designated for Opportunity Village and the back acre remaining utilized for vehicle storage with a fence erected to separate the two.
There were existing plans to develop a city storage facility on the site, but at the time, there was no funding to proceed with the project. Consequently, the land was approved to host a temporary pilot project, which—after going through the necessary steps for acquiring a conditional use permit—would amount to just over one year. The conditional use permit was approved with no opposition present at the official hearing, and the project has since received unanimous support from neighbors and city officials. Nine months after opening, Lt. Eric Klinko of the Eugene Police Department stated, “It has gone better than I thought it would. [The village] has not been a burden to the neighborhood in terms of a crime impact.” Furthermore, Claire Syrett, the city councilor who represents the ward in which the village exists, endorsed the project:
"From everything that I have seen and heard regarding Opportunity Village Eugene, it seems to be a great success, in terms of their goals and the commitments they made to the residents of the village, the neighborhood and the City Council... I have received zero complaints regarding Opportunity Village."
A Formally Informal Village
Opportunity Village aims to strike a balance between the informal—as embodied by Dignity Village—and the formal—as embodied by Quixote Village. For example, we borrowed significantly from Dignity Village’s venerable system of self-management and governance. Their low-cost operation was developed over a long period of time, largely by the residents themselves with the materials available and under the radar of formal regulations. It is a testament to what homeless individuals can do for themselves, and should be truly respected for that. However, due to both the location of the site and the structure of the organization, the community is isolated and inaccessible.
On the other hand, Quixote Village has found a way to implement a similar concept through the formal development process. While the village has a similar origin as Dignity in a self-organized tent city, it received significant government funding and was built by a contractor with little involvement of the residents—with a capital cost of $3 million. However, unlike Pinellas Hope, a strong emphasis on self-governance was maintained even with the addition of outside paid staff members. This can be attributed to the strong bonds developed between residents and advocates during the years as a democratic tent city. While some aspects of the initial vision were compromised, Quixote Village offers a streamlined approach for implementing a similar model with less dependence on the participation of the residents or the surrounding community.
In my opinion, Opportunity Village falls somewhere between these two examples. A primary goal of the community is to bridge the existing gap between the housed and the unhoused. The village is self-managed and governed in a manner similar to Dignity, but with a close relationship to a separate non-profit organizationthat includes board members and volunteers from the surrounding community.
Rather than an on-site caseworker, the village attempts to build social capital by connecting residents with relationships and mentors in the local community. This is based on the philosophy that meeting ten people can be more effective than simply turning in ten applications, especially in a tough economy. To this end, the villagers have developed a “Watch Opportunity Work” program—a feature on the OVE website that connects members of the local community with villagers based on their skills, needs, and goals. This has allowed villagers to find occasional work to help pay the $30 monthly utility fee that sustains the community. Furthermore, local teachers and professors have recently started an education program at the village—offering courses on a variety of subjects to villagers and other unhoused people.
By harnessing the skills and resources available within the local community, we were able to divert the formal development process. Instead, residents, volunteers, and skilled builders worked together to develop the village incrementally over the course of nine months on a shoestring budget. After receiving a key to the site in mid-August 2013, we held a “big build” event in which volunteers and residents erected five tiny houses, built ten raised garden beds, and dug a 200 foot trench at two feet deep to run a water line to where the kitchen would eventually stand. Following the construction, around a dozen of the first residents moved in. This core group had already been meeting bi-weekly in the months leading up to the opening. From there, new residents were brought in incrementally, and often moved on site in tents while their shelters were being built. It took a couple weeks to run electricity to the site, and months to complete all of the common facilities.
But by May 2014, the village was built—including micro-housing, a gathering yurt, common kitchen, front office, tool shed, and bathhouse with flush toilets, a shower, and laundry room. I choose not to call it complete since it is a living environment where existing and future residents will continue to make modifications and additions based on need and desire.
The city did not simply turn a blind eye to the project, but instead worked with our non-profit to develop creative solutions for making this informal concept fit within formal regulations. They were incentivized to provide flexibility to accommodate the project since it addressed a paramount issue at no cost to the city other than the provision of land. The plan and structures were required to meet code and undergo permitting, but a number of unconventional practices allowed for low-cost development—including not being required to have a licensed contractor, not having plans stamped by a registered architect, not having to meet excessive requirements for permanent foundations and insulation, and being allowed to build the village incrementally with volunteer labor. In essence, returning the home building process to the people, similar to a good old-fashioned barn raising.
The initial temporary nature of the site created a unique design challenge—to build a village of structures that could be relocated if necessary, while making them substantial and attractive enough that no one would want to move them. Due to the limited duration of the pilot project, electrical and plumbing infrastructure was limited to the common facilities rather than each individual unit, similar to Dignity Village. Consolidating utility hook-ups helped to significantly reduce permitting complexities and expenses. Chapter 16, Building a Village, offers detailed information on the structures at the village along with more on the building process.
As a result of this informally formal approach, the village has been able to be funded entirely by cash and in-kind donations from private individuals, businesses, and organizations. Following the completion of the village, we had received donations of $500 or more from 38 individuals and 20 businesses and organizations. The housing structures cost between $1,000 and $2,000 each to construct, allowing for some donors to sponsor an individual unit.
In addition, the grassroots approach elicited thousands of hours and dollars of volunteer labor and donated materials. Subtracting in-kind donations, the entire village was able to be built for around $100,000—not far off from the per unit cost at Quixote Village. Granted, the facilities at Opportunity Village are less formal and with fewer amenities, but with the $3 million required to develop Quixote Village, this route could house approximately 1,000 people at a time.