The Village Alternative: Andrew Heben and Tim McCormick Have a Democratic Solution to Houselessness
By Thacher Schmid
In recent years, American homelessness has been on the rise again. In 2015, West Coast cities declared homeless “emergencies.” Since 2017, “Point in Time” counts have risen; some measures see unhoused populations at all-time highs.
Now, due to Covid-19, the numbers could spike higher: as many as 28 million could face eviction in the wake of 40 million layoffs, and one analyst projects a new 43 percent rise.
What to do?
The tiny house village is a solution that has been embraced as low-cost, human-centric, flexible and creative. If Andrew Heben and Tim McCormick are right, it’s our best chance at solving a crisis created by centuries of housing elitism — a street-level concept with diverse roots which offers a pragmatic alternative to a static status quo.
The origins of today’s village movement could fairly be placed in the American West Coast of the 1990s, when protest and partnership created Tent City 3 in Seattle, Dome Village in Los Angeles and Dignity Village in Portland. Nowadays, the movement has diffuse adherents who range from protester to politician, architect to advocate, “vagrant” to #vanlife. Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, Heben’s Square One Villages in Eugene and McCormick’s Village Collaborative in Portland are among the groups working to further the vision.
Heben, 33, is author of 2014’s “Tent City Urbanism” and cofounder and Project Manager at Square One Villages, a collaborative Eugene, Ore. nonprofit that’s created widely-heralded village models. The city’s former mayor Kitty Piercy is board president, yet it has collective action roots in the Occupy movement. Heben, a University of Cincinnati graduate, often travels to give workshops on villages. He favors black hoodie sweatshirts and leather work boots. He lives with his wife Joline and one-year-old daughter Kora in a 384-square-foot house at Emerald Village, a permanent affordable village founded in 2011.
McCormick, 46, is a housing advocate, researcher and project developer, coauthor of “Village Buildings: West Coast Housing From the Bottom Up,” and micro-housing enthusiast. A Yale graduate, McCormick moderates the PDX Shelter Forum and the Village Collaborative, favors old brown oxfords and collared shirts, does grant and contract writing, works as a furniture assembler and helps care for his aging parents in Portland. A U.K.-American dual citizen, McCormick once lived in a tiny house prototype in a huge, communal Oakland, Calif. warehouse owned by a progressive tech entrepreneur.
In October 2020, after grabbing a burrito at Nelson’s Taquería nearby — where Heben and McCormick chatted about community land trust and limited equity cooperative minutiae — the pair sat for a wide-ranging, two-hour interview inside the Emerald Village commons, next to a garden box teeming with red Thai peppers, punctuated by occasional freight train horn blasts and wheel-squeal.
Schmid: America is witnessing a new wave of homelessness after a pandemic led to tens of millions of lost jobs and a new wave of evictions. You’ve written about this history. How does what’s happening now compare with the past?
Heben: The pandemic is getting people to think a little bit differently about how we provide shelter to the unhoused. Moving away from the congregate shelter, you see a lot of cities trying the small homes or micro pods.
McCormick: There’s points of similarity. Homelessness spreads in times of disruption, and you’ve got the post-Civil War industrialization, and the Great Depression, and I would say, the economic restructuring at the end of the 1970s. The pandemic is another one. Disease and epidemics have played a big role in reshaping our thinking about housing. If you look at where housing regulations and policies come from, they’re very interwoven with reactions to disease. It’s been awhile since that’s happened, but it might force a very pervasive rethinking, because disease hits everybody, it scares everybody, so it has this way of cutting across divisions.
Heben: I think our attention to homelessness is attached to events like the pandemic or the housing foreclosure crisis, or the Occupy movement, but it’s something that has been a consistent problem since as far back as we can see. I see it more as a pervasive problem that is basically just a structural political-economic part of our society.
Schmid: New York City has a legal right to shelter, while West Coast states have the nation’s highest rates of unsheltered homelessness. How do homeless populations differ across the country and how much does that reflect different state or local responses?
McCormick: It’s more housed, or it’s more sheltered elsewhere, because of weather, historical practice, and sometimes law.
Heben: In terms of East Coast versus West Coast, I think it’s a difference in politics, and a difference in climate.
McCormick: I think most of the Northeast has older traditions of ways that they dealt with vagrants and stuff, going back way into the 19th century. So there’s longer traditions of ways that we sheltered transients and tramps. And then the Western United States is more spacious, and people kind of do for themselves. [Nationally], the homeless population, compared to the Seventies, is older, less male, it’s more families, it’s more minorities.
Schmid: I want to zero in on tiny house villages as a response to homelessness. How do they compare to tent cities, sanctioned encampments or tent villages?
Heben: I think those are all possibly words to describe the same thing, based on your perspective and background. All of them describe a more informal approach to the issue of homelessness than the traditional top-down approach of the congregate shelter, and there isn’t as defined a vocabulary around it for that reason. The difference between tiny house villages and tent city would be a difference in physical structure, largely. I think the tent city is when the existing social service industry doesn’t serve a population. People inevitably fall through the cracks and develop their own solutions to those problems, and that’s largely a self-organized, kind of democratically run tent city.
The reason that it stays a tent city is largely issues of land ownership and policing and the unsanctioned nature of it. So they continue to get moved around and are unable to develop beyond the very ephemeral infrastructure of a tent city. Whereas if you give a group of people sanctioned land, you’ll see [cases like] Dignity Village, an itinerant camp that moved to probably a dozen different locations throughout [Portland] before finally being given a semi-permanent location. They’ve existed there for 20 years now. That was the first pilot of this concept of, if you give a homeless camp a stable home, and I think it’s led a lot of people to look at it as an experiment that has been built upon and improved upon since then.
Schmid: What about tiny house villages versus traditional brick-and-mortar shelters, or even affordable housing?
McCormick: Well, those last two things are conventional, mainstream, dominant responses. The other things you mentioned are basically a space of things that are outside of those. Those conventional responses either don’t reach everybody, aren’t meeting people’s needs, aren’t attractive to everybody, [or] aren’t there at all in some cases. There’s no one clear term, and any terms you use have certain implications, or associations, and the ones you mentioned differ notably in sort of the degree of deviance or disfavor that they tend to express.
Schmid: You are referring to tent cities, sanctioned encampments and tent villages?
McCormick: Yes. Encampments tends to be pretty negative. It’s kind of a weird, bureaucratic term. Why not say camps?
Heben: It’s usually used if it’s a city-approved kind of thing, city operated or something.
McCormick: But there’s always a suggestion of “invalid,” I think, and deviance. It’s in this deviant space, like outside of real building. And tent city is that way too, because nobody believes that tents are appropriate housing. Tiny house villages is a very clear step towards expressing a positive, legitimate angle. It’s also something that isn’t necessarily just for homeless people. Many people might want to live in one, and do.
Heben: That’s a good point. Nobody wants to advocate for living in a tent as a long-term solution. The tiny house village kind of looks at two parallel movements of self-organized encampments but also the popular tiny house movement, which is people downsizing or a population that isn’t necessarily making that choice because of income reasons. There’s a general infatuation around tiny houses, prime time TV shows about the topic. It’s a thing that everybody is familiar with, and they also have the characteristics of a normal house, so people can relate to them as actual houses. So in a way it’s more of a marketing approach there; you’re basically making it a more attractive thing that you might want to have in your neighborhood — a tiny house village — versus a tent encampment.
But even a tiny house village model is not just a solution to homelessness. It’s basically just a scale of housing, rather than any particular type of person. Lots of different types of people are attracted to this scale of development, where you have a modest, private individual space and then shared indoor and outdoor spaces. It’s something that’s attractive to a broad range of folks, and it’s an option that’s just not available in our city. You have the apartment building, or the single family house. There’s not a lot of shared housing options in most cities. So I see it as a way to both provide solutions to issues of homelessness and low income housing, and an additional option of how we house ourselves.
McCormick: I like to use the term “alternative” shelter and “alternative” housing, because it’s kind of capacious, without being judgmental. There’s a variety of reasons you want an alternative. We’re just not making the normal one the same way.
Schmid: Advocates promote certain things about villages, like safety, community, a lockable door and help navigating complex systems. What are the most important elements?
Heben: Democratic participation and control. I think it’s about that sense of ownership, and having a say in how your housing or shelter is operated and managed. That’s what makes it a village and not a shelter or encampment. And that’s the thing, in looking at how you scale this model and provide more of these places throughout the country, [that] probably will be the first thing on the chopping block if a city is going to do something like this. They see homelessness and low-income housing as a statistical problem to solve.
You have to treat people like people and respect people and give them a sense of ownership over the place in which they’re living if you want to see good results. All of the projects that we’ve done thus far, you always have that initial public reaction of “oh, this is going to result in an increase of crime and violence in this area.” People don’t want it in their neighborhood initially. But as we’ve done more projects, we’ve shown that those [perceptions] simply aren’t true, and in fact, it creates a safer environment with more eyes on the street. That’s because we’re giving people a place to live over which they have a sense of ownership, not necessarily financial, but in terms of decision making.
McCormick: Self-determination is a good concept, because it covers not only how the village is run, but also, hopefully, describes a key aspect of how space is used. Self-determination means there is space which is mine, and I decide who is in it. I have a door that closes, and I have a locker. That’s exactly what shelters tend to take away from you. There’s no space. You’re just put in a bunk, and then you’re moved to another one. Anyone could rifle through your bunk. I think that’s something that, if people really engaged with homelessness and thought about it empathetically, they’d realize why shelters just don’t work well. They deny what we more or less all take — at least in the modern times — to be necessary to live in an adequate way, which is, I have to have control of my own space. We don’t take that away from ordinary citizens; we don’t command them where to sit and take away space around them.
Heben: Yeah, when you see unsanctioned or illegal tent clusters that pop up and lots of people, there’s trash and feces and that has shaped the public perception of what homelessness is, because that’s what we see. But if you’re not given a legal space to live in the city and you’re forced to live your entire life in the public realm, and you don’t have access to bathrooms or running water or garbage services, of course you’re not going to take care of the environment in which you live. You’re going to have resentment towards that.
So the first element is giving people access to basic services, having sanitation, in order to avoid some of the common misperceptions around homelessness, [that] if you allow a bunch of people in poverty to congregate, that it’s going to result in crime and violence. [But] that’s more the result of creating places in which people don’t have any sense of place or ownership. When you give people a say over where they live, they don’t want people that are going to cause constant disruption. So they sort those problems out.
I don’t want to make it sound like an ideal place, because in terms of living in community, [a village] is very messy. There’s often conflicts. You have people from different backgrounds living and making decisions together. There’s always some sort of simmering conflict. But what you’ll see is that the conflict doesn’t spill over into the outside community because there’s a greater interest in making sure that the place continues to exist.
Schmid: Tiny house villages cost a fraction of either traditional shelters or affordable housing, both in terms of development costs and ongoing budgets. So why haven’t village shelter models been used more frequently?
Heben: I think you are seeing them be used more frequently for that reason, of lack of funding and a pervasive problem. You see city councils starting to approve more of these pilot projects for that very reason. I think part of it has to do with funding sources that are available, and the funding requirements that these projects might not meet. They’re geared towards more traditional buildings and it’s just the way that it’s been done. There’s existing partnerships between the city and social service providers, and the social service providers sort of have leverage in that sense, because they’re going to be the ones that do the work, and so they decide which RFPs [Request For Proposals] they apply for, and they require lots of money to pay their staff. There’s also a hesitancy, from the political perspective, to accept more grassroots approaches to issues like this.
McCormick: It’s primarily inertia at this point, and it being new. There’s an overwhelming tendency for agencies, organizations, governments to go with the model they’ve been using. We’re steeped in it, but if you just parachuted in somewhere in America, people have vaguely heard of [villages]. It’s something foreign that they don’t know much about. Then there’s the fact that there are institutions that have grown up around these issues that are well-intentioned, well run, often idealistically run nonprofits, that operate a certain way. They’ve learned that they need to try to maintain overhead, and you can’t easily dismiss that; they’ve been in the game and survived this long. Whatever they’re doing, they’ve stayed afloat. But you could wonder if, like any organization, they’re operating on inertia to some extent and are institutionally resistant to innovation, because it would threaten them.
Heben: I think there’s also the perception that [a village] doesn’t meet high enough quality standards. There’s the political belief that everybody deserves access to a decent house, just like everyone else. While that’s well-meaning, it often stands in the way of people having access to any sort of stability or security in their life.
Schmid: Perfection becomes the enemy of the good?
Heben: Very much so. But it’s often a political argument used to basically stop anything from happening. If you look at the political reality of our federal government, in order to do anything, in terms of having that long-term, big-scale impact of providing housing to everyone, it’s going to require a huge structural change. If you’ve paid any attention to the recent past and where things appear to be heading, it’s not going to happen any time soon. Permanent supportive housing is the solution to homelessness, right? It costs tons of money to build, tons of money to manage. So a lot of cities have developed plans about how they’re going to end homelessness through permanent supportive housing, but where are these buildings going to come from? It’s not a realistic scenario, and so a lot of interest in these villages is tied to the fact that they’re practical solutions to complex problems that are in front of us today.
Schmid: From the “shopping cart parades” that led to Dignity Village in Portland in 1999, to the Occupy movement that led to OM Village in Madison and Opportunity Village in Eugene in 2011, the first homeless villages were born of protest. Now, governments are creating villages. What’s the difference between a village born of protest and one born of policy?
Heben: Often, it’s the way it’s organized. Villages that are formed out of protest, in terms of grassroots mobilization, it’s people fighting for their right to organize their own shelter and have a place of existence in the city. If a city gives people that right, then they’re able to have ownership over the place, whereas if it’s created out of policy, it’s thinking about it as more of a statistical and efficiency problem, and forgets the human aspect. So if there’s not like these cofounders that founded on values and principles and it’s a city government that’s starting it as a way to address a statistical problem, it doesn’t include those human elements, and it becomes kind of a storage box for people.
McCormick: When you look at villages, there’s this wide variety of origin stories and development paths. So it’s hard to generalize about them. After all, we’re talking about unique environments in every case. The social and political environment, and the set of people who came together are unique. There’s always an effort to be like, what is the model? In some places it required a big protest to kick it off, and people to occupy land by force, and it wouldn’t have otherwise happened. In other places, Emerald Village is a case where there was extremely good community buy-in and cooperation. So it has this totally different story.
Heben: I think we were able to do that with Emerald Village because of the success of Opportunity Village. Emerald Village was created without any sort of existing population that was demanding shelter, whereas Opportunity Village was a reaction to 200 people that were unhoused in the Occupy movement that got displaced and had no other place to go. But it also has to do a lot with local politics in conservative versus more liberal cities. You have the example of Dignity Village in Portland, versus the Pinellas Hope example in St. Petersburg, Florida, where it’s a very similar group of people. Both groups were moved around the city, were democratically organized, there were outside activists who were helping them organize, and they were fighting for a legal place to live. They finally did give them a legal place to live, but the city totally controlled how that process happened, and they contracted with an existing social service provider to create, basically, an outdoor shelter that is run exactly like an indoor shelter. [Laughs.] When you take the self-determination and the autonomous components out of it, it basically just becomes a shelter with worse infrastructure, and putting people in tents outside. That’s the delicate balance, is you don’t want this to be perceived as the solution, if you’re going to just set up outdoor tent shelters run like a traditional shelter.
Schmid: Cities both Democrat and Republican led make camp cleanups or “sweeps” a central feature of policy towards unhoused people. How do nascent villages avoid getting swept before they’re established?
McCormick: If it’s starting to be discussed as a village, at that point it probably has arrived at some kind of legitimacy or presence, such that it’s not going to be swept. That’s what the term might suggest. You form a village, or a name, or a narrative, as one of the defenses against that. To say, no, we actually exist.
Schmid: Defense against sweeps?
McCormick: Against sweeps. I really see villages and these kinds of projects as a narrative and a community over time. It often crosses different locations, structures and forms. It might start out just as a group of people, and they are sleeping on cardboard. But they’ve named themselves, and formed an identity. They’ve formed something, but it’s not a physical thing, it’s like an identity, a story, and that often is what enables it.
Heben: It creates a story that newspapers follow, or report on, each time it moves, and they then attract people that are sympathetic to the issue, and so they gain supporters. It’s largely a collaboration between the housed and the unhoused that tend to lead to these sanctioned encampments, and it’s through that that it develops an identity, it becomes a cause, and it becomes politically contentious to start to move them around.
McCormick: And there’s something about it, whether or not they’re literally protesting, it’s almost inherently a protest. Because it’s an act of resistance, and reclamation, against a dominant environment that has dispossessed them. The very act of occupying land is a political act.
Schmid: So you’re saying an early-stage village is a story of resistance?
Heben: I think it starts out as a story of …
McCormick: A story of survival, maybe.
Heben: … and it’s often picking residual spaces that are outside of contact with people. That’s how you don’t get swept, right? The whole story of Camp Take Notice in my book closely follows the six different locations that they stayed in. It started out as picking locations that they wouldn’t be seen or caught, for very particular reasons. Then they made a calculated move to be located in the center of a highway interchange, where people couldn’t help but see them. That was doing what Tim was saying, giving them a political identity and a story.
McCormick: And you can see cases which are the opposite. So actually, the case of these pallet things in Los Angeles: L.A. is the epicenter, the biggest [unsheltered houseless population] in the whole country. It’s on the scale of Europe’s biggest refugee camps. And we’ve had this kind of deadlock, and a lot of innovative things. The problem’s the worst, and there’s the widest span of interesting answers. Currently they’re setting up a number of camps, but it’s very top-down, because a judge has commanded them. So in a sense this is the exact opposite origin point from beginning as a dweller-led protest camp or occupation. But it’s possible these dynamics could kind of converge. It’s unknown. It’s a story that’s getting written. Names and representations matter, because they’re how the story gets written about at the outset. So if you start out, and you call it “Covid-19 Emergency Camp,” you’ve signed and sealed its fate. You’ve inaugurated it in a way that’s terminated it.
Schmid: Some houseless villages are self-managed, for example by residents who are board members of a nonprofit. Others are collaborations with — or run by — outside agencies or institutions. How important is real self-governance?
Heben: I think the partnership with an outside sponsor or nonprofit entity is a critical component, and the founders at Dignity Village will tell you that as well. We’re talking about emergency and transitional housing, so the population by definition is revolving, so there’s not going to always be that ongoing keeper of knowledge and the original founding values as such. So an outside agency that’s able to play a facilitation role is critical to the long-term operations of these places, but how that outside entity approaches the program makes the difference. There’s ways of still valuing resident input and decision-making, not having a 100 percent pure self-governance model. I don’t think that’s a really scalable or realistic solution.
The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in Seattle is currently the best example of this. So there’s Dignity Village, where the residents of the village are the board of the nonprofit. Opportunity Village took the next step, of having an outside board of directors of people in the community, but still allowing the residents to make decisions within the village, based on a village manual and operating agreement. Then you see LIHI really bring this model to scale. Why is that? Because they’re also the largest existing housing provider in King County.
Schmid: Tim, do you agree that it’s crucial to have an outside facilitator or agency?
McCormick: You’d be pretty lucky to succeed without it. I can imagine it happening, I can imagine a colony of people who really get their act together. But there’s just certain things that are needed, like people that know city council members, or donors. It’s about having this plug-in to the community, but it’s a tricky connection to make that happen. The people who are going to be street unsheltered homeless, and get together, are just going to be divorced from a lot of things that are needed to sustain. It could happen, but it would be like this unusual band of brothers that somehow made it work. In any case, why would we not want somebody to be helping them out? If done well, it’s just supporting them and helping them.
Heben: It comes down to the perspective of the partner nonprofit in how they view the issue and the value they give to the residents’ ability to make the best decisions for the community.
McCormick: This tension between self-determination and command-and-control, there’s a couple of points where you really see this conflict. One of them is coordinated entry. This is something that the federal government basically demands of every community in its handling of homelessness. It says, “you need to have one database and one queue.” Everyone comes in, they’re evaluated, then you post them where they’re going to go.
Schmid: Like HMIS [Homeless Management Information System]?
McCormick: Exactly. And that’s directly at odds with a village determining who goes there. So unless you work something out, those are going to be in tension.
Heben: The self-managed village is basically an informal cooperative, so what we’ve been focused on is developing a more permanent housing model based on a similar structure using the cooperative framework, which is an existing ownership and business entity that allows the residents to become their own corporation and run and manage their own housing. But in doing that, we’ve moved from the more temporary sleeping pods to permanent housing with bathrooms and kitchens. So I think that ideal of resident self-governance is functional and important, but in order to see it operate in a more hands-off autonomous nature, you have to get people to that more permanent housing model.
Schmid: The structures in villages vary widely, including Tuff Sheds, Conestoga huts, small shacks, crafted mini-bungalows, and repurposed shipping containers, even recycled light rail cars. Do these different designs matter, and why?
Heben: Variation in the structures in a village is very important. It might not seem that important when you’re dealing with an issue that is a matter of life and death, but it has a lot to do with making it feel like a place to call home, a space which has place. The organization and configuration of those buildings, and how they face each other, has a very important part to play, compared to like a Tuff Shed placed in grids.
McCormick: It’s a dead giveaway. If you go see a picture of a place, and there’s identical-looking structures in a row, it’s a dead giveaway that this is top-down controlled, not user-run.
Heben: The one caveat to that might be LIHI.
McCormick: Yeah. Wait until it’s been there a few months, though. If, after a few months, it’s still a row of identical-looking buildings, [there’s] no user governance going on. LIHI will have a row of [identical] things, but within a few months, doors will be different colors, new roofs will be there, a deck will appear on one.
Heben: Allowing it to come to life, and allowing people to put their own personal touches on it. There’s a tension here between creating unique housing and the scalability of needing to address a very large problem, but there’s ways we can create structures that are very similar and can be constructed quickly, but allow people to choose the colors and do finishing touches that makes it feel like a place that’s alive and not just a shelter.
McCormick: On the question of the variety [of structure] you see across all of these, in some ways it doesn’t matter that much.
Schmid: Whether it’s TuffSheds or Conestoga huts?
McCormick: Right. How it is set up and run is more determinative. You could have a place that’s nicer units, that’s really tyrannically run and it would be no good. You also could have a place that’s tents on pallets that’s a really well done, inspiring thing. If people feel respected, and empowered and able to do things, that matters more than the physical structure.
Heben: I thought you had a point though, that if people are empowered, they’re going to inherently create a space that isn’t sterile, and has a sense of identity.
McCormick: And they’ll tend to evolve it if they are. They’ll upbuild it. Given a chance, people will build on. It’s not that hard to build simple wood structures. [Laughs.] I think different structures do make people feel differently, sometimes in unexpected ways. I remember going to a site in Seattle, it was a city-authorized campsite, and they had some tiny houses and tent platforms, and we were being shown around by this person who lived there. I was like “How would you like the tiny houses to be different?” And she’s like, “Most of us actually don’t like those much, because they get really hot, and we can’t move them. It needs a flatbed truck. We feel more comfortable in the tents.” The tents they had adapted and put a canopy over. To them, it was more adaptable and more portable, and they felt more comfortable.
Heben: You mean SHARE/WHEEL’s camps, Nickelsville? They were also operating under specific constraints of having to move every 90 days. That’s a huge factor.
Schmid: The former head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Barbara Poppe, has said the tiny houses in villages, what she called “huts,” are human rights violations because they lack plumbing, heat or wired electricity. How do you respond to that?
Heben: I would invite her to talk to the people that live in some of these places. The gap between living on the street and living in a place like Opportunity Village, that doesn’t have heat, or a kitchen or bathroom in the house, is a far greater gap than the gap between living in Opportunity Village and a traditional apartment. She’s forgetting that by just doing that, you’re meeting people’s basic needs in terms of stability, security, ability to stay warm and dry, even if those aren’t in every building because that’s not financially feasible. More so, oftentimes because these places are only approved on [a temporary basis], never long enough for it to make sense for us to invest in infrastructure. So the temporary-ness of these prohibits you from doing stuff like that.
I don’t need to argue this; people will tell you that. Just the simple fact of having a door to close and not having to live your entire life in the public realm is a huge difference. Obviously, I think we all want to get what she’s getting at there, access to a traditional apartment. But given the way that [Housing and Urban Development] is funded, it’s just not a practical argument.
McCormick: This is a fundamental and perennial argument. There’s a core argument there that goes back many decades. They call it the problem of housing standards, and it’s been discussed endlessly in international development. There’s always people that say, no, this is inadequate, this isn’t meeting our full current standard. There’s always other people that say, yeah, but a third of the population doesn’t have anything, so we’re helping people out.
Heben: And that’s a big reason why we have the homeless population we have today, because …
McCormick: We do nothing.
Heben: In the early twentieth century, there was a broad range of housing options, including SROs [Single Room Occupancy units], where you could rent a room by the day, week, month. We’ve kind of deleted those lower-end options from the array of housing options …
McCormick: You can call that exclusionary zoning.
Heben: And it created this gap, so the gap between the street and a housing unit has gotten bigger, and that’s why you have so many people that are homeless.
McCormick: Basically there is a 200-year tradition of people, particularly middle and upper class people, proclaiming and pushing housing standards that have the effect of excluding and impoverishing people that can’t meet that standard. If you impose standards, without simultaneously providing the resources for everyone to meet those standards, you’re basically consigning people to homelessness or slums. It’s like that. This has been observed for 200 years.
In Victorian England, in the 1850s, plenty of people started realizing that, no, you can’t just knock down all these slum buildings, because you didn’t provide somewhere else for them to go. They just move into the neighborhood next door. You can’t just require much larger amounts of space and light, unless you fund that housing, because all those people still need to live around there. So that argument is archetypal, and people have had answers to that for hundreds of years, and I see it made, very often, in an ahistorical way, with not much knowledge of how it has been used to exclude unhoused people for centuries.
Schmid: With shared bathrooms and common-use areas, how do tiny house communities for the homeless do in promoting hygiene and public health during a pandemic?
McCormick: In a lot of ways, they’re great, because they’re separating people thoroughly and creating open space and air. Those are all great things, and they can pretty readily have their own bathrooms and plumbing. It’s not that hard to have your own composting toilet. You’re probably better off than a shelter, or certainly a tent. So I’d say they’re generally good.
Heben: The reliance on common facilities has been a challenge for us at Opportunity Village. The way that we’ve handled that is we’ve brought in portapotties, so there’s more choices. There’s pros and cons to it. The pandemic has made most senses of community challenging. We’re forcing people to isolate, for a good reason. The village model is beneficial in that you’re giving everybody access to your own private space in which you don’t have to sleep in a common area with a cot, but it is a challenge with the common facilities. Again, it’s better than the alternative of living out on the street without access to any facilities. The idea that the alternative is that we can somehow put everybody in their own apartment with their own bathroom and kitchen is just not realistic.
Schmid: Overcrowded apartments have also been identified as a problem, haven’t they?
McCormick: Conventional housing also is a problem. They’re getting more crowded. And the eviction crisis emerging, the problem it may cause may be more overcrowding rather than homelessness. That remains to be seen. People go somewhere, if they’re forced out of their house. Only a fraction end up homeless.
In the broader culture, if you could measure this, I’d say the tiny house index crept upward from the pandemic. [Laughs.] More people are thinking about my own space, separation, maybe air, maybe getting out of the city.
Schmid: Do you mean as a response to houselessness as well as people that have privilege?
McCormick: Yeah. Everybody. If you had some stock market index, which is the national psyche assessment of tiny house-ism, I think it went upward, because people are like, I want more space, maybe out in a garden, and not in a big crowded apartment building.
Schmid: So you see Americans becoming more open to tiny house village responses now?
McCormick: I think so. It’s growing awareness. It’s a very new thing. I think we probably are continually overestimating how familiar people are, because we’re into it. Most people, it’s like, they see something on HGTV or something.
Heben: Because of that HGTV show, however, just about everybody is familiar with the concept. I think the challenge is how to navigate existing zoning and building codes to make that happen. There’s ways to do it.
McCormick: What I’ve seen over and over is, you say “tiny house,” or “village with small housing,” this is hard for people to grasp. But if you show them an actual unit, or a picture of a cottage cluster, people tend to love it — even people that were skeptical. They have really positive responses. To see this kind of village ringing around a little courtyard, it’s kind of like bikes in a city: most people have not experienced commuting by bike in a city in dedicated bike lanes. As soon as they do, they’re like, oh my God, this is brilliant.
Schmid: Do you think of the support of tiny house villages as a response to homelessness as a social movement?
McCormick: I’d say so. There are threads. There’s exchanges of information. There’s manuals and conferences.
Heben: Yeah. It’s definitely a very local movement in each area, and I think it’s because it’s a scale that the average person can engage in, the tiny house village, and homelessness is a problem that we all see in our city in our everyday life. It’s an approachable, practical response to it that the average person can get involved in and do where you don’t have to rely on large public funding programs with large existing service providers. It’s kind of an alternative path. When we post stuff on social media, the number one [response] is, why isn’t there one of these in every city in the country? How do we start one of these? I think it gives people hope that they can actually provide a hands-on, tangible solution to the issue.
McCormick: People interpret it to their own interest. One thing I see is people take it up and they interpret it as purely a temporary or emergency solution. I’m always pushing back on that, to say, “you know it doesn’t have to be that, right?” Or trying to figure out why they do that.
Heben: This is an important point that we haven’t touched on. As a concept, it comes up as a very local, grassroots thing, but in terms of scalability, it needs to be something more than that. It requires public funding to actually address this issue in a meaningful way. We’ve started to see that happen in Seattle, where LIHI operates 15 villages they’ve developed in two or three years. So public funding is the key to this. The grassroots efforts like Opportunity Village or Dignity Village or the SHARE/WHEEL camps in Seattle are key to showing that it can work.
It was seen as this idealistic concept that local city councils were skeptical of, but a few different cities, realizing that this problem wasn’t going to go away, approved pilot projects that have now surfaced and existed for a long period of time and dispelled many of the myths for not allowing places like this. So we now are moving on to the next chapter, where local municipalities are starting to invest in these places and providing operating funding. You see that in Seattle, Clackamas County [Oregon], and smaller cities like Olympia, Wash.
That’s a very good example of why, Opportunity Village, we’ve only done one of those, and now we’ve moved on to permanent housing models, because [temporary] projects operate at a deficit and require ongoing fundraising, whereas [permanent villages] are self-sustaining.
Schmid: The biggest pot of money, of course, is federal. Since 1992, federal housing officials have supported the concept of “Housing First,” the idea that homeless people are most successful when placed in housing first, without preconditions, after which they can tackle barriers like unemployment, addiction, or health problems. Do villages fit into, or repudiate, this approach?
McCormick: They definitely can be seen as exemplum of it. Even temporary ones. Housing first is something I’ve studied a lot, and just as with any widely heralded thing, it gets different interpretations and is understood in different ways.
Heben: Very much so. Compared to what it actually is.
McCormick: There’s a lot of people who kind of map their assumptions on to it, or assumptions are made in the research about it. For example, [researchers] say something like, “well, we compared permanent housing to some other model.” And you say, “what was permanent housing, what did you define as that?” And they’ll say, “you know, mainstream housing.” And it turns out that they never particularly defined or tested. So you’re like, “OK, so if we did a permanent tiny house village, that would be permanent housing, right?” They’re like, “maybe.” They’ve assumed tiny house villages wouldn’t apply, but they didn’t actually explore that.
Heben: And the way it’s implemented in practice is actually very different than the way you’ve described it, because it actually requires you to be chronically homeless before you qualify for a housing first program, which means you have to have been homeless for at least two years or so many times in a row, plus you have to have developed a disabling condition. So this idea of housing first after you become disabled out of the lack of having housing — it’s ridiculous. It’s really a system designed to keep a revolving door that benefits a lot of large social service providers. It’s not ending homelessness — it’s creating a cycle.
Schmid: I’ve seen this as a services professional, that as things have gotten worse in recent years, programs have increasingly been designed for the most vulnerable people.
Heben: Which is good. That’s a thing we need to do, right? But if you’re not also doing something to stop people from ending up like that, you’re not really solving the issue. That’s why we’re interested in developing this permanent cooperative housing model, because we believe that is a permanent housing model that can catch people that are on very limited or fixed incomes that could be on their way to becoming homeless. It is providing them a stable place to land before they become chronically homeless.
McCormick: It’s the most complex problem in the world. But on the other hand, it is pretty simple. We need to make available, one way or another, a whole bunch more low-cost housing. That’s it.
Heben: That’s why I’m sort of an observer of this topic from the periphery, because I’ve more become a housing developer. I started as a homeless advocate …
McCormick: Now you’re a pro forma reader. [Laughs.]
Heben: Right. Now I read pro formas [analyses of financial feasibility for development projects] and figure out how to develop housing because I think unless more people do stuff like that, if we just allow the traditional housing development model, we’re going to just keep following the tax credits, and not make any sort of meaningful change. Unfortunately, if we just keep creating more units of housing following the same tenant-landlord low-income rental housing model, we’re just kind of throwing housing units into a vacuum that’s not going to actually solve the issue.
Schmid: Some observers say zoning and building codes have become dauntingly complex, bureaucratic or expensive, making it hard to fund or build villages. Do you agree, and if you had a magic wand, what would you change first?
Heben: I don’t see building codes or zoning to be that big of an obstacle. We’ve created these places without much alteration to the existing codes. You can build a tiny house village as basically a detached multifamily development that can be built on any residential property in Eugene. You just have to follow the density guidelines. The bigger factor in all this is the availability of patient capital [money lent with lenient repayment terms] or funding sources that are flexible enough to allow for developments like this, and not incentivize more complex developments. Tax credits, by their nature, incentivize you to make the housing more expensive. So housing developers follow the availability of public subsidies, and the availability of investors to make a profit.
McCormick: There’s a commercial multiunit model that has a certain set of rules that leads to fairly predictable outcomes. They’re rent maximizing, large unit, fill the property. There’s another set of rules that are for tax credit buildings, that end up going the same place. If it doesn’t fit one of those two formulas, it’s a bit like, who’s doing it? Also, who’s lobbying for it? What’s the constituency that’s pushing the laws? Certain constituencies are very involved from the start. What sector has time to send people to [lobby] all the time?
Schmid: If you had a magic wand, is there a law or funding mechanism you would change first?
Heben: Providing below-market-rate-interest loans to affordable housing developments. Access to low to zero-interest loans would allow more people to develop more housing. Currently, the tax credit program is just inherently problematic. It increases costs every step of the way, and it requires you to involve a whole broad range of professionals …
McCormick: So much overhead. You can’t do it in a lean way.
Heben: Yeah. And there’s a bunch of people taking a little bit off the top, so there’s a lot of people interested in the continuation of that, but the availability of more-flexible sources of capital is what’s needed.
McCormick: And also more flexible use of public land. Right now, most places by law have to sell it to the highest bidder, if they dispose of land. That’s just a conventional real estate practice that they put on places so that they wouldn’t be corrupt. Some places are starting to change that so that you can convey land to nonprofits. But that just means they give it to the traditional high-cost developers. But yeah, low-cost loans, for nonprofits, which is a practice going way back to the mid-19th century.
Heben: Sure. In the 60’s and 70’s it was a very popular thing. They created tens of thousands of cooperative housing developments through these very loans. The issue is, that didn’t benefit banks, or people that have an interest in making money off of all this. That’s why it has been shaped the way it has. Look at Section 8 vouchers. Those are designed to benefit landlords. You’re putting money in the pockets of landlords. It’s a terribly inefficient way of doing it. But it’s this idea that the private sector has to drive any sort of solution or progress in housing development. What you’ll find is that it kind of just warps the whole process, in which people extract as much money as possible and deliver the minimum viable product.
McCormick: If you rewind 20 or 30 years, it was more understandable. You’d be like, there’s no way we can do this building feasibly without federal involvement or these loans. Fast forward 30 years, and you’ve got this behemoth of a process that’s so unwieldy and costly that it starts to get to the point that maybe we can do better just by throwing it away.
Schmid: Black people are 13 percent of the nation’s population but 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness, according to Point in Time homeless counts. What role have Black leaders played in the village movement, and how does the village model meet the needs of homeless Black people?
Heben: Ibrahim Mubarak pioneered Dignity Village. The group of Dignity Village founders were a very diverse folk.
McCormick: He’s a big figure. With Dignity Village, also, a number of key people were, if not themselves African American, very interested in African American culture. So one of the other key people, Jack Tafari, was this British Rastafarian. He went to Ghana, and died there. And Mark Lakeman is very interested in village patterns and buildings, including African.
Schmid: Any other Black leaders come to mind?
McCormick: In Portland right now, LaQuida Landford is the leader of Afro Village PDX. An important one, really foundational, was Ted Hayes, the guy who started Dome Village in L.A. Dome Village was the precursor to Dignity Village. You might say it didn’t go as far, because it was always tenuously on someone else’s property, but it was there for quite a few years, with pretty permanent structures.
Heben: That was tied to the Take Back the Land movement, wasn’t it?
McCormick: I think so. Hayes is one of the very top people you would think of having any sort of influence in that field.
Schmid: What about how the village meets the needs of houseless Black people?
Heben: I think by definition, in terms of involving houseless people in the process and making them leaders of the shelter models in the places in which they live, if that’s a higher population, [a village] is giving everybody who lives there an equal voice.
McCormick: I don’t know that there’s any obvious reason that it would be different for Black homeless people than any other category of homeless people.
Heben: That’s what I’m suggesting. Each person has an equal voice. [Villages] emphasize democratic process, where everybody has a voice, and if they’re a significantly overrepresented population, they should be significantly represented in these places.
McCormick: That [40%] figure is probably from Point in Time Count, which is meaning that it’s especially representing chronic, long-term homelessness. The fact of that giant disparity is the result of the mainstream system failing. So something that’s deliberately alternative to the mainstream system holds promise. We’re trying to do things in a different way than the mainstream has, and make people more self-determinative.
Heben: But these models have also sprung up in the Northwest, as opposed to other geographic areas, which are whiter areas than other parts of the country, so that also has to factor into it.
McCormick: Well, there’s a lot of activity in Philadelphia recently, where two encampments just started. That was largely African American.
Heben: In terms of [villages] receiving sanctioned status, though, that has been largely Northwest. But you’re right, this is a common phenomenon in all cities.
McCormick: We could observe that community land trust has an important root in African America. It originated in a farm community in …
McCormick: So you could say, well, it’s informed what Square One Villages is doing.
Schmid: Some villages currently shelter specific groups, including women, veterans, religious groups, Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or LGBTQ populations. Do you support the idea of creating villages with similar identities or backgrounds, or a diverse setting like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved” community?
Heben: I support creating diverse settings. We’re doing permanent housing, largely, now, and you can’t discriminate, so that’s one factor, fair housing. It seems to me that population-specific model is often done as a way to build community support. How can you not support housing veterans? But in terms of a self-managed community, I think they benefit from a diverse population of people from different backgrounds and different skill sets that can come together and work together.
McCormick: I definitely feel uninclined to tell any group of people that they can’t self-organize the village that they want to.
Heben: Right. That tends to be the decision by the developer or operator of the project, and it’s often a way to source funds for a project. I think we see this a lot with funding that’s geared towards serving families. But if you look at the demographic trends, everything is pointing to a drastic increase in one and two person households. A lot of our funding sources are geared towards building two, three, four bedroom houses. Building studios and one-bedroom apartments, you receive a worse score on funding applications for that. But if you’re a housing authority, the wait times for a studio or one-bedroom far exceeds that of a family-sized unit.
McCormick: Single males tend to report much more difficulty getting services. A lot of services are for women and families, or women with children.
Heben: But it’s not just that. In general, more households are single and two-person households of all sorts of different types of people.
McCormick: So Afro Village PDX is an interesting test case for that kind of dedicated community. That’s just this embryonic thing, so it’s not exactly carved in stone. And I’ve heard different versions of it, being African oriented, African American, African American post-prison population. So it’s probably still being worked out. [But] that’s a case where, as far as I can tell, it’s not coming from some funding strategy. It’s just what she [Landford] thinks is needed.
Heben: You’re right. That’s why I didn’t want to say that definitively. I think that’s the case sometimes. I think there’s people that see a need and want to help a certain type of people. I don’t know, maybe we should do it differently in the whole shelter realm, but if you look at the whole housing realm, you can’t just create, like …
McCormick: Categories of people?
Heben: Yeah. When you apply some of these things that you do in shelter models, in terms of targeting specific types of people, that’s not the way the real world works. We live in an environment where we don’t necessarily pick our neighbors. They can be any type of people.
Schmid: Domestic violence is the number one cause of homelessness among women. Many unhoused people are vulnerable in other ways. Do villages that shelter these groups need fences and gatehouses?
Heben: I think it’s important for them to have defined boundaries where you can monitor who’s coming and who’s going. What we’ve seen, in the Occupy movement for example, is when you don’t have that, you have people from the outside coming in and causing problems. And then that’s perceived like, this can’t work. So there needs to be some regulation, where the people that live there can maintain the place where they live, and defend it from outsiders.
McCormick: I would hesitate to make a hard rule about fences and stuff. It might matter, significantly, whether the site has solid, durable structures that securely close and lock. If not, if you’re in a tent, then, you might fear going to sleep. That’s different than in a cabin.
Heben: The Occupy camp here locally is a good example, where there wasn’t defined boundaries and people that weren’t even really involved with the camp came in, started fighting, I believe somebody died, and it caused the whole thing to be shut down. It had nothing to do with the people that were living there, participating in the process. There is a value, to some extent, to be able to manage who comes and goes.
McCormick: With that question, it sounds a little bit like something that authorities would impose.
Heben: I was on that side of the fence when I first got into this initially and wrote Tent City Urbanism, and I know that was a thing for Dignity Village, when they did receive the sanction and [public land], there were a number of people that didn’t go to the site and highlighted the fence. But I can speak from the experience of Opportunity Village. They called it a “gated community” and the people there say they feel safe. But it creates this exclusion.
Schmid: Some villages patrol their surroundings, have guard shacks or security fencing, rules or behavioral codes. Yet the perception that they are magnets for crime persists, and many neighborhoods remain reluctant to host them. Why?
McCormick: Because neighbors, particularly homeowners, are always fearful about a whole bunch of things. [Laughs.]
Heben: I think it has to do with the nature of homeownership, where you’re putting your property value at the forefront.
McCormick: Maybe there’s some rational basis. But it’s also a huge magnet for prejudice.
Heben: It’s also conventional wisdom. It’s a rampant belief amongst folks. It’s very hard to break the stereotype that the congregation of poor people results in crime and violence. It goes back to the ownership concept of the village. It’s more about how you treat those people, and what freedoms you allow them to have in terms of the place in which they live.
McCormick: I’ve been listening to a lot of homeowners in PDX Shelter Forum [an online discussion space which McCormick moderates], and there’s all these people from the neighborhood associations who are genuinely well-intentioned, and consciously voicing concerns for social justice, including everybody. But they’re very clearly perceiving disorder and crime associated with camps, and they’re very unhappy about it. They may be appraised of the point that what they’re seeing might not be caused by homeless people, there might be people dumping stuff there, it might be dealers that go and deal there, but at a certain point they don’t care, because these factors are all there together. [Laughs.]
So I’m hearing someone say, “we have this dead-end street at the park near us, and it’s turned into this drug-dealing den in the tents down there, and it’s just this festering thing.” So it’s a reality to them, even if we could prove that net crime in Southeast Portland hasn’t increased. So this becomes a practical issue, because whatever the legitimacy of their opinion, we’re trying to place a village, and we’re trying to get buy-in, and we’re trying to convince them that we’re doing something about it. So we may have to promise the fence, or the patrols, or something like that. But it’s an absolute minefield, and path to ruin, to start being steered by people’s fears. Because fear is infinite. Fear of the Other and the unhoused is infinite. It can never be completely appeased.
Also, things that you do in response to that could be useless or counterproductive. One thing I see constantly is some camp or village proposal, and the city staff has been entrusted to estimate this project, compared to their favored option. Of course, they estimate round-the-clock, team member professional security. And maybe they’ve been required to hire the police, and it’s hundreds of dollars per hour. Of course, this ends up making the thing look horrifically expensive. And you don’t want professional security or police there. That’s traumatizing and alienating most of the people in the village. [Laughs.] So it’s done, supposedly, to help, but it’s really harmful. There’s a bunch of cases out there showing that security tends to work really well when it’s run by the village people themselves. I’ve had great experiences visiting many villages and being shown around by resident-run security. So many people in those camps are fearful of official security and police, even traumatized by them.
Schmid: Some child protective services systems won’t place a child in a tiny house village for houseless people. This may reflect the fact that some villages do not perform background checks. Do you think children are safe in villages?
McCormick: They could be. As safe as anywhere else.
Heben: The examples I’ve seen, like Nickelsville, even when it was unsanctioned, had several children there. People that I talked to there seemed to think it was an important thing. It changed residents’ perspective in terms of wanting to make it be a clean and orderly and safe place. Everybody else that lives there takes those types of things more seriously when kids are there. I know the LIHI villages also have children in those.
McCormick: I feel like there should be a presumption in favor of it, because it’s something that people do. They have children. They have them before they got homeless, they have them when they’re homeless. They get married or meet partners who have children. By default, we should try to make that work.
Heben: If you want to find a better situation for them, awesome, but I think they’re better in a community like that, where they have neighbors that support them, than having to live in a storefront, where they’re exposed.
McCormick: The bigger context is we live in an extraordinarily generation separating culture, by global and historical standards. The U.S. in general is extreme in separating generations from each other. I have a father in a care home; I have watched that myself, personally.
Schmid: According to a recent presentation from the Portland area’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, the monthly cost for “Creating Conscious Communities Together” (C3PO), three sanctioned tent village managed by a nonprofit, is $145,000 a month for 110 people. By comparison, Right 2 Dream Too, a self-governed houseless village, costs $3,000 a month for 100. Both models sit on public lands. Why might the self-governed group cost less?
Heben: Staffing costs and overhead of the nonprofit. I think Square One is kind of in the midst of this, of being in between. We’re not a grassroots group anymore; we’re not a big social services provider either. We started Opportunity Village 100 percent volunteer-run. I don’t think that’s sustainable in the long term. It’s certainly not sustainable in creating a scalable solution that serves more than 30 people or so. The trick is, how do you provide staffing support effectively? I think it’s about finding the right balance between staffing and self-management.
Schmid: What benefits do taxpayers get from more-managed village shelter models?
Heben: I don’t know that they’re better managed. I think a lot of times one of the reasons they become more expensive is, they probably have full-time case managers, for example, that are meeting with folks and trying to help them get into other places. That’s a good thing, but it costs a lot of money; you have multiple annual salaries you have to start covering.
McCormick: The outcomes might not be better at all. They might be worse. Comparing a more self-governed versus a more-managed camp, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that the more-managed one, or higher-budget one has better outcomes for the people in the village. Maybe you get better job placement, or something like that, because you’ve got dedicated people. On the other hand, the self-determination of people in self-governing might be more beneficial to them.
Heben: A lot of the metrics we use to evaluate whether these places are successful are all smoke and mirrors, too. Their funding sources are based on transition rates, so they’re incentivized to get more people into housing, and there’s lots of ways you can do that, that don’t actually result in the person being housed in the long-term. So what you see is, there’s an incentive to just move people through without actually addressing the long-term causes of what made them homeless in the first place. There’s nobody monitoring what happens to that person after they get placed, the day after they live there. You can kind of cook the books pretty easy to make it look very successful. But I do think having some of that staff support for people is important, particularly for people that are interested in being connected with resources and finding a different living situation.
McCormick: Oftentimes [staffing] seems to be sort of unnecessarily considered together with the housing form. People will talk about a village that needs to happen, and then they’ll describe the land and the building, and then they’ll start layering on all the staff costs, and say “this is the cost of the village.” Maybe it’s better to keep those things [separate].
Heben: Yeah, you start paying people that aren’t even directly involved in the project, and it’s just a way to fund your organization. You create a large organization, and then all of a sudden you have to cover your annual operating budget. It kind of self-perpetuates, and things get more expensive.
McCormick: I think in most cases, the case managers and support people and all that, they could operate whether it was an SRO [Single Room Occupancy] or a tiny house village.
Heben: Yeah. I support connecting those types of services, like case managers, to people, rather than structures or projects.
McCormick: Yeah. They get lumped together, and then you get these cost estimates that are really confused. They’re confusing the housing form with the services they attach to it.
Heben: That’s very much the case with permanent supportive housing as well. They have insanely high operating costs that rely on really large amounts of ongoing subsidies in order to continue to operate that just aren’t there.
McCormick: When they say “homelessness” these days, very often people are talking about “chronic” homelessness. Then it’s assumed that people need this whole array of services, and also that people would be permanently in need. This shapes your whole vantage around certain things. If you pull back, and you say “anyone experiencing homelessness,” the vast majority of those people, it’s casual, not very long term, and often they don’t really need other services. They lost their job, they got thrown out of their house or something. So this is a recurring thing for me, pushing back against the endless narrowing of the discourse to chronic, extreme-case homelessness.
Heben: That’s why I’m interested in creating more housing options that don’t result in people ending up in that situation. Obviously, now that we’re in this situation, you need those band-aid approaches, but they don’t do anything to stop the issue.
McCormick: It’s like a permanent emergency response.
Heben: That’s a good way to describe it.
McCormick: It’s like we’ve built a whole system around a permanent emergency.
Heben: You see that now, with the response to the pandemic. A lot of cities are creating these “rest stops” and things like that, and they’re thinking about them in very short term metrics, and investing a lot of money into these pallet shelter concepts. For a similar amount of money, you could build a more durable and higher quality of shelter. But they’re thinking about it as “how do we solve this issue this winter?” as if next winter homelessness isn’t going to be a thing.
McCormick: Just seeing the same type of archetypal argument, over and over again, this emergency-as-temporary-response [approach]. What do you think is going to happen next year?
Heben: There’s a political discomfort in acknowledging that homelessness is embedded in our political economy. More and more people are wising up to that as ten-year plans to end homelessness end and the problem keeps on getting worse. That’s why you see more and more interest in these types of models in city councils.
Schmid: Some faith-based communities might welcome villages for the houseless, and own underused and available land. Are there many tiny house villages at churches, mosques or synagogues?
Heben: I think there are.
McCormick: Well, sometimes they may sell the land, like the cases you’re dealing with. The whole SHARE/WHEEL model [in Seattle] was predicated on church land. They move from church to church. And I think that’s where Portland is going with its whole Shelter to Housing Continuum code reform project.
Heben: Most of our car camping sites with the Conestoga huts and such are on church property, where they host up to six Conestoga huts. It’s actually a very common thing, and it’s because land use exemptions allow them to do things you can’t do on other types of land. Churches are a huge player in making a difference and helping out with the issue. I just think it’s kind of a sad component, because they’re basically picking up the slack of local government. We’ve kind of come to rely on them. The City of Eugene, there’s five new rest stop sites approved. But you need funding to operate these places, and they’ve come to rely on the grassroots activist groups and the churches to do it. It’s just not a long-term, scalable and sustainable solution. I think churches are overburdened with this issue. Churches and libraries.
Schmid: Many churches have declining enrollments and land they’ve owned for a long time. But you think the government should be funding this?
Heben: Well, it’s a public problem. It needs to be dealt with by the public. But it’s not. So churches are kind of doing an oversharing of the burden of addressing this issue.
McCormick: I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s this really long tradition of church and faith organizations helping — in fact, historically, up until pretty recently, they were the main people that did anything about homelessness.
Heben: Still are, really. Three of the six founding members of our organization were church pastors.
McCormick: So it’s actually what normally has been done throughout our history. But civil rights and equal protections were also not normally done. For a couple thousand years, it was pretty much a Christian and Islamic voluntary sector — charity — that helped all the people that were homeless, and founded hospitals, which were often housing. But we live in a different world now, in which the public sector controls land use in a far greater part of the economy. I feel like governments, and I’m watching Portland do this now, are kind of copping out, and being like, helping all of the people who have been left out of our systems — maybe the churches can pick that up.
Heben: That’s what I was getting at. It’s become a let-them-deal-with-it kind of thing.
Schmid: A pressure release valve?
McCormick: A way of avoiding responsibility.
Heben: Of avoiding responsibility and putting resources into an issue that needs resources.
McCormick: And avoiding political fights.
Heben: There’s often an issue, historically, with city and county government, with the city thinking it’s the county’s responsibility and the county thinking it’s the city’s. Or it’s a federal problem. So it’s a lot of finger pointing, and nobody ends up actually doing anything and the churches end up, out of their good nature, helping people.
McCormick: Take Portland as an example. They’re like, “there’s a bunch of churches with extra land on their parking lots.” I guess there are, but that’s also a bunch of different organizations and situations. On the other hand, we keep hearing about the hundreds and hundreds of vacant and underused parking lots the city has. People have been fighting for years, to get these maps and inventories out of them, and they never want to do it. We don’t want to have to organize a different unique model with like 75 different churches. We want to figure out a model that you can know what the rules are and do it on every site.
Schmid: So there are unique challenges in working with faith-based communities?
McCormick: Unique advantages. They’re probably really good as sites go, it’s just that the public sector has resources that a bunch of separate churches don’t. It has land, it has control of zoning, it has access to federal funding.
Schmid: On the West Coast, we’ve seen pioneering examples of houseless villages. Are villages mostly in blue states and cities, or are they also springing up in red states and rural areas?
McCormick: They’re springing up in other places. I was just watching Kansas City. This veterans organization in Kansas City has got one village and wants to do a bunch more.
Heben: That’s an example of, in a conservative city, making it a veterans project is what made that work, right?
McCormick: Right. Maybe that’s a beachhead. Then you’ve got, are there villages in Salt Lake City? I think it can have some pretty cross-political appeal. On the one hand you’re doing something new, but on the other hand, you’re kind of doing traditional, detached housing. So it has a lot of traditional appeal to have your own house and fly your own flag outside, and there’s self-determination there. So it can appeal to a lot of people across political [boundaries] in ways that a shelter doesn’t.
I’ve gotten this spreadsheet, which is a research group at Missouri State University’s mapping of every village in the country, according to their criteria. Not quite the same criteria as we might use, but still probably the best mapping yet. There are versions all over the country. There are things that are only temporary, and there are developments that are like RV parks, that weren’t really packaged as homelessness, maybe low income.
Schmid: The vintage single-wide trailer, and today’s tiny house, how different are they?
McCormick: That’s a good question, because physical resemblance is only one question. You might find physical resemblance in their space, for example square footage, but how they’re built, the industry, regulations and cultural association are all different.
Heben: And the long-term durability of them, the materials they’re built out of.
McCormick: It’s really common in our society generally to equate and quantify living space by square footage. So people are constantly dismissing and mocking tiny houses, as in, “I’m into tiny houses, especially if they’re adjoining and stacked. Ha ha, that’s an apartment building.” It’s like, “Ha ha! Yes.” As if that’s the only thing that’s different, is square footage. [Laughs.]
Schmid: Many existing West coast homeless villages were suffocated in smoke this summer. Tiny houses have also been part of regional responses to extreme weather, as in the Gulf Coast’s Katrina “cottages” and trailers. How well do villages work in climate crisis?
McCormick: In a lot of ways it might be quite good. Smoke affects everybody. You might have to go outside a bit more if you’re in a small unit than if you were in a big apartment building, but it’s not that different. You either stay inside with everything closed, or you go outside where there’s smoke. You might in your tiny house have better control over ventilation and air than being in some New York City building whose windows don’t fully close. I’m really interested in the spectrum of housing that includes moveable and relocatable housing. The more mobile your housing is, the more adaptable you are to most emergencies. Even in the recent wildfires in Oregon, authorities were advising, “if you have a trailer, just drive to Portland, and find somewhere to go there.”
Schmid: What about the legacy of Hurricane Katrina and Katrina trailers or cottages? What can be improved on?
McCormick: Basically, do the opposite of Katrina trailers. That’s a case study in what not to do. It was completely top-down, and total profiteering. So contractors and buddies with ties to FEMA were selling these units at a fortune, and they were just kind of dropped on the population. I saw a bunch of these, because I worked as a volunteer after Katrina in Biloxi. They were totally flawed, and filled with foam and formaldehyde, which made them disastrous for health, and tons of them were just abandoned. They exemplify everything about how trailers, and sometimes mobile homes, are non-adaptable, non-maintainable. They’re just these aluminum, fiberglass bubbles you can’t alter. And they’re very cramped. I’ve been in them. Two people in one is crowded. So it’s pretty much wrong in every way. [Laughs.] Luckily, there were other things done.
Heben: I think the real challenge, or conflict, is with scalability. A lot of times when we see it move from the grassroots to the top-down approach, it loses the elements that made it of value in the first place. It kind of gets all those stripped out of it and it’s very austere. So I think the question is, how do you scale this up without falling into this?
Schmid: Would you like grassroots organizations or village advocates to partner with corporations, political or civic leaders?
Heben: A lot of this comes back to having adequate public funding to operate these places. Maybe rather than giving a huge lump sum to an organization that does the whole thing, is providing grants to different neighborhood groups, that each creates their own village. The locality and the place-based nature of this model is a really important piece. The interaction of the housed and the unhoused, on that personal, local level is important. So how do you keep that while doing it at a meaningful scale? Here in Eugene, they just approved five new rest stops. But who’s going to operate them?
McCormick: By the time the emergency hits, it’s too late. If nothing has really been planned out, it’s going to go down Katrina Trail Road.
Heben: It’s the unwillingness to address the issue until it’s an absolute emergency, and then you address it in a very short-term way.
McCormick: Emergencies are gigantic profit opportunities for a lot of powerful people. They’re very happy for there to be no plans on the ground. They can get a call in to FEMA, and get a giant contract. What if we were totally rational in thinking about all of the catastrophes and problems on our event horizon? In the case of Oregon, you have massive earthquakes and wildfires. So you could have hundreds of thousands of refugees, houseless, instantly. If we were really rationally operating, we’d be doing a lot of things differently. We’re totally unprepared for a massive Cascadia earthquake. A bunch of infrastructure is going to just collapse, for years. We’re just hoping and praying for a gigantic federal bailout.
The thing I would think to do, being rational, would be to say, OK, in any of these circumstances, we need hundreds of thousands of fast, low-cost homes. Yes, we could throw everybody in someone else’s house, but that’s a social disaster. So, how can we make this happen? I’d say, pre-approve unit types that are really easy to make. That are similar to what was built after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, which is one of the best precedents ever for doing this well. And it would use very basic stuff, like basic lumber that already exists and is easily acquired. Then, have pre-approved locations, and maybe even foundation posts, pre-set. Maybe, underneath lawns, in every new house, put a set of foundation posts.
So gradually, over years, ahead of time, at a fairly low cost, creating this capacity for throwing up, in a matter of weeks, large numbers of units providing new space and shelter. You’re also doing things like creating 500-gallon water tanks in every ten of them. It would save you tens of billions of dollars after the event. You could also marry this to doing useful things in the meantime. Like, they could be low-cost backyard cottages. They don’t have to be unused. So you say to people, “OK, who wants to host a FEMA rental cottage? Pick one of these plans, we’ll send out a crew, lay these down, and if there’s an emergency and you agree to shelter people, we give you this loan to do it.” Stuff like that.
Schmid: Nobody understands homelessness like those who have experienced it. How successful has the village movement been in centralizing the lived experience of houseless people?
Heben: The whole point is putting it at the forefront in terms of allowing people with the lived experience to be involved in determining their shelter.
McCormick: More so than any other approach. It has largely evolved from observing what people have done. Where does it come from? Some tradition of protests and camps, then Dome Village, then Dignity Village. These are grassroots-generated things. There wasn’t a federal commission that came out in 1975 that talked about the new village model. [Laughs.]
Heben: What you see with the self-organized tent city is that if people fall through the cracks, these are the types of communities that they would organize for simply providing better infrastructure and support to allow them to operate a little more effectively.
Schmid: Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, has emphasized the importance of having an “exit plan” before an encampment or village is sanctioned. There is evidence that people can end up living for years or even decades in houseless villages that are designed to be “temporary.” Should exit plans be required?
Heben: Opportunity Village is an example, where we have a couple people that have been there since the beginning, eight years ago. I know those people. What’s the alternative? There’s just a lack of opportunity for certain people. The idea that everybody is going to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and earn a living wage when a lot of these people are disabled and have been beaten down and screwed over by society in a lot of different ways … Our philosophy has been to provide resources and staffing to help people transition out. I don’t think kicking them out into the streets is the answer.
McCormick: I might ask, should there be a required exit plan for Eric Tars to leave his house, or his job, because change development is good for people? Why is this something that we impose upon poor, helpless people? This is a very elite point of view.
Heben: The position we’ve evolved in Opportunity Village on that is, a lot of times transitional housing programs have a set duration, two years oftentimes, sometimes shorter, but we simply require that residents meet with a case worker a certain number of times.
McCormick: Also, why should we decide? How about we let villages decide what they think their policy should be? Maybe they think it’s good, maybe they think it’s bad. I wouldn’t even presume to say. I’ve talked to one of the people at moving SHARE/WHEEL camps in Seattle, which were moved every three months, and he said, “you know, surprisingly, I kind of like [moving], because it sort of gives us this chance to shake things up and rearrange things that would otherwise be harder to do.” Definitely not what I was expecting. I know of Eric Tars, I’ve read his work and followed him a lot, often chatted with him on social media. I can infer from the question, but I know separately, that he basically views villages as inherently a substandard and temporary thing at best. He’s written about this at great length, and coauthored reports. So I know that he’s coming from that standpoint. So I would say to him, “what if it’s not a temporary village? What if it’s not set up that way?”
Heben: Nobody wants to be an advocate of living in a tent permanently. So it’s a fair point of view to desire better living conditions for everybody. But in the absence of those opportunities, we shouldn’t just kick everybody out of Opportunity Village. We now require people to meet with a staff person every couple of months to have a plan, but if they’re not successful in executing that plan, they don’t get kicked out.
McCormick: One thing hovering in that question is, what is the presumed better thing?
Heben: A house with a kitchen and a bathroom.
McCormick: So I’ve talked to people in Dignity Village who’ve lived there for years [with shared bathrooms and kitchen]. They’re proud, they’ve got this nice house, it’s decorated, they’re really proud of it, and they’re like, it’s working out for them. If we say to them, “Hey, on the other side of town, here’s an apartment, unit 609, in this building,” I think many people in that context wouldn’t want that. They’re like, “What? I built this house, and I’m in this community of people.” A standard apartment building is like complete alienation. No community whatsoever. Should we assume a standard apartment with a kitchen is better for that person?
Heben: He’s very much looking at it like a statistical problem, rather than a quality of life problem.
Schmid: You’re saying that some who live in villages that officials consider unsheltered homelessness might continue to choose to live there over a permanent housing opportunity?
Heben: It’s not just simply a personal desire to not do that. These are people that have suffered from abuse, and a lot of bad things have happened to these people. There’s a lack of trust. If you have this safe place in Dignity Village that you’ve been at for several years, and you’re given the keys to this apartment, what happens next month? If something bad happens, you’re back where you started from. So there’s a lack of trust there. It’s not that simple.
Schmid: I’ve heard the village has a “secret sauce.” Is it in helping people who often have high trauma and barriers through community and informal peer support?
Heben: I think so. At the same time, it’s fair to have expectations of a higher quality of life.
McCormick: The notion of housing quality needs a lot of examination, though.
Heben: Yeah. I agree.
McCormick: The history of housing regulation is basically middle and upper-middle class people, driven by fear and stereotype, imposing on powerless and poor people how they should live. It has dramatically lacked dweller self-determination.
Heben: That’s the extreme. I think there’s an in-between, though, right?
McCormick: There’s intermingled wish for the betterment of people. But even when there’s that, and I hear it in statements from Barbara Poppe or Eric Tars, there’s tremendous confidence that they have the right to judge what is quality housing for other people. Why should we assume that you have that? How do upper-class people live? An upper-class person builds a house in a wealthy suburb and has two SUVs. Should I really allow you to live that way? That’s completely inappropriate, and harmful to you and the environment.
Heben: [Laughs.] That’s a good point, actually.
McCormick: That’s not appropriate quality of housing. It’s un-urban, it’s isolating, it’s environmentally damaging. Surely we should prevent you from making that mistake with your life, and being spiritually un-moored in that way.
Heben: I never thought about it like that. [Laughs.]
McCormick: We should have a very strong presumption in favor of the dweller’s own judgment and determination of their needs and wishes. The history of housing is 100 percent the story of doing the opposite. Of imposing on others and assuming for them. Should there be an exit plan required? Well, [Tars] is apparently ready to require a plan, but not the provision of an apartment, and that would be the worst scenario. Where that’s going, is what happens, which is they’re forced to leave, but they’re not provided another place to go.
Schmid: How can states, cities, and smaller organizations work proactively to address our current wave of homelessness?
McCormick: There’s lots of models. You don’t have to go reinventing anything. There have been many years of people setting up villages and camps. When you look at places like L.A., they’re doing it pretty fast, on a large scale. Stop arguing the same old questions that have been argued for years on every such project, and fast forward to say, “OK, let’s look at who out there has a good model, and let’s see what they did well.”
It’s about getting to urgency, and getting to action. Because there will be a bunch of people that will be very happy to argue this into the ground for years and years. No problem. But it’s about saying, “we have an emergency. It’s not acceptable to have thousands of people abandoned and left on our streets. How are we fixing it beginning this week?” Somehow resetting it to that level of urgency.
Heben: Yeah. And we clearly don’t have the resources to solve the issue overnight, providing everybody housing. The key to it is working with people rather than against people. So often we see local municipalities fighting against the current, trying to stop the issue of camping. People are camping, and then you sweep them, and you spend huge amounts of money cleaning it up. Conversely, you could recognize that there’s a problem, try to find suitable sites and provide the necessary infrastructure to meet people’s basic needs.
McCormick: States and the federal government could help a lot if they embraced this view that emergencies and dire needs require actions. We need to mobilize on a large scale. They could prevent localities from fending off the problem and NIMBY[Not In My Backyard]-ing it. States could do things, like California does with housing, and come up with assessments of the amounts of housing places need to create. Or it could be shelter or interim housing. Places will complain until the cows come home about things they don’t want to do, and they will present it to be utterly impossible, and inconceivably expensive. But if you actually force them, like in California, the judge has ordered, if they’re actually put to it, they find a way.
You can shelter people, you know. [Laughs.] But not unless it’s made urgent and mandatory upon you. You can also do it way better than just by building the same kind of housing you build from the top of the current private market, which means you’re making half a million dollar units that no way can you make enough of them, nor will you ever get enough political support for building enough of them, nor is it really what most people want.
Thacher Schmid is a journalist, musician and bilingual social services professional. Email: email@example.com. Portfolio: ThacherSchmid.com.