• Matt Szuch

It Takes A Village

I wanted to spend some time traveling with my mom and have some one on one time (especially since my wife and I are starting our big trip in the near future and I don’t know exactly when we’ll be in Walla Walla again). We had the idea to do a road trip, and as she is very interested in the homeless villages in the Pacific Northwest, we decided we would use only public transportation and visit some of the villages that are here in Washington and Oregon.

My original goal actually had nothing to do with social work or homeless villages; I simply wanted to spend a week or two traveling with my mother and have some 1:1 time. We were thinking about backpacking/using the train through Europe, but decided to do a road trip as she didn’t want to do any longer flights. My mother has always volunteered her time and effort towards various social causes, from food and clothing banks to larger charity organizations though almost always focusing on something in her community.

My childhood and the volunteer activities we did as a family is where I certainly trace the origins of my interest in assisting the less fortunate. Here in Walla Walla there is an organization, Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless, that is going through the process of getting approval for the development and building of a homeless village. They are getting some pushback from some members of the community and we wanted to learn more about how it was done in other communities and cities.

Before we even arrived at our first destination, we found ourselves talking with a middle-aged lady traveling from Walla Walla to Tacoma who was on her way to help her ill mother. As coincidence sometimes arranges, she herself used to be homeless in the not-too-distant past and was very interested in our trip. She was homeless in the Seattle area and had a lot of things to say about the experience she had and what she thought about the living situation for homeless people.

Our itinerary was rather open beside the beginning and end, though generally we knew we would start in Seattle, then head to Portland and finally end up back in Walla Walla. We ended up adding Olympia and Eugene, which was a good decision as the villages there were very unique and we learned quite a bit. We started out by taking a small shuttle to Pasco and a Greyhound bus to Seattle. The trip itself was rather uneventful, though the discussion we had with the lady going to help her mother was certainly quite educational. She was someone who was homeless in the past and she suggested a few places to visit in Seattle where we could talk to and see how different homeless communities lived.

What exactly do I mean when I say homeless village? It’s a good question, as the name itself is rather vague. Perhaps a better way to describe is an “intentional homeless community with semi-permanent housing”. There has been a lot of research done by many different organizations on the situation of the homeless, and there are essentially two different schools of thought on how to help them. The first one is the most common and has the most support from different socially positive organizations and governmental bodies: provide food and clothing assistance and a safe place to sleep. This is simplifying it greatly, but generally how it is approached. There are also many churches that offer a faith-based approach with some more long-term shelter/housing options.

The second approach is one that is rather newer but has gained a lot of support in the past 5-10 years because of a few success stories (and, I like to think, common sense). This approach provides small houses (often referred to as “tiny homes”) and a strong community structure to help with the transition process of moving on to more permanent housing, work, etc. In this article I won’t go into a lot of details about the benefits and reasons, but the part that strongly appeals to me is that the Tiny Home Villages are nearly fully managed and supported by the communities themselves, and the main focus is to give people a place to call home as they work towards transitioning to something more permanent.

We were planning to visiting two of these communities in Seattle. The first one was Nickelsville in the Capitol Hill area. It opened in January 2016 and is an extension of a similar village opened at the end of 2015 in Ballard. The village itself is made up of 14 small homes built by donations (and sometimes the donators themselves), at the cost of approximately $2,200. The village itself is within a fenced area, with a gate and a security station that is manned by the members of the community twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When we stopped by, there were a few people in the common area, one of whom was repairing bicycles. The houses were all different colors and shapes and each had flowers or herbs that are planted and cared for by the residents. I was really impressed at the condition of the village; partially because it is new-ish, but the common areas, a kitchen, shop-like area, security and some storage, were all very organized and well maintained. It was rather unobtrusive as well, considering it is dead center in the middle of a well-off residential community.

The people we talked to there were very willing to tell us about their experiences there, and what they thought about the place. Like most of the other villages we visited, each resident has to pay a certain amount per month depending on their income, as well as doing a certain amount of work for the community. The work is quite varied, from doing security, to general maintenance, to repairing bicycles (this service was also used to make some money for the community) to even going out and cleaning up trash in the nearby community. This is one of the parts that I liked the most, where there is an effort to be a positive part of the neighboring community as well as part of their own. We only saw this in the villages that were actually built within an existing residential neighborhood though, which is about half of the ones we visited.

The next village we visited was Nickelsville in Ballard. This one was established a few months before the previous one, but in some ways seemed to be not quite as “complete” as the one in Capitol Hill. Only a week before we arrived to visit had they gotten a water storage tank installed. Previously they would rely on community members and themselves to bring in potable water for the community to drink. In this village we spent most of our time talking toa resident who was on security duty, Matt, and getting a bit of a tour around the property and his thoughts on how it was going. Initially when the village first started, they had a lot of pushback and concerns from people in the neighborhood (“NIMBYs – Not In My Back Yard), but this has changed dramatically in the past few months. The community cleaning they do has helped a lot, and members of the community have taken the time to stop by the village and meet the members as well.

One of the things that surprised me was how “non-homeless” the people and the villages seemed. I guess that is sort of the whole point, but I was mentally prepared for a bunch of homeless people in small houses or tents who were not very clean, unorganized and messy. But immediately after visiting the first village my expectations were changed quite dramatically. Instead what I felt was more like I was visiting a small village square with hippies living there. No offense to hippies (my parents were a bit late and did this somewhat in the 80’s), but immediately after visiting the first village my expectations were changed quite dramatically. This was the most powerful part of the trip for me; a very in-your-face reminder that none of the people living in these communities wanted to be homeless. They are really not so different than me or my wife or my friends, only they had some bad luck or made one or two poor choices. None of them would choose to live on the street or without a roof over their heads, and now they had a way to start working back towards having permanent housing.

We left Seattle on Tuesday and headed down towards Olympia to visit the Quixote Village. This was different in many ways from the places we visited in Seattle; it was outside of any residential areas (instead of being literally next door or across the street) and the property and houses were much more developed and planned. This village seemed to be run more by an organization instead of by the community.

Quixote Village is certainly unique in that it was built with a much higher budget, $3.1 million, than all of the other places we visited, and the community residents were not as involved in the day to day operation and activities in the village itself. It certainly did not appear to be more or less maintained than the other villages, but their common room and building was quite a bit larger and more permanent. This was the most difficult village for me to compare to the others in our trip, as it really felt more like low-income housing as opposed to a community. I’m sure that having the full time program manager and community advocate helps significantly to maintain this level of professionalism.

That evening we hopped on the Amtrak to Portland, where we started our morning the next day by visiting Dignity Village. Like all of the semi-permanent villages outside of Seattle, this took about an hour to get to via bus from the city center and was located right next to a large composting facility. While it didn’t smell at all while we were there, I can imagine at times it’s not great. This is one of the communities I admired the most, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that we had a very thorough tour given to us by great lady who lived there and was part of the community board for the village management. She actually met her husband there as well, and went into great detail about how her life had been impacted by the opportunities she had been given and how she was doing her part to give back as well.

The other thing that really impressed me about Dignity Village is their obviously large amount of time and effort they put into financially supporting their community. They had one whole shed that was the “ebay house”, where they refurbished items that they would have donated to them or acquired themselves at yard sales. These would be fixed up by the community members with relevant skills, and then sold on ebay and the profits used to help support the community. They also did this with wood and/or lumber, drying and curing it before selling it as firewood. This takes a lot of organization and trust to manage something like this, both of which seemed clear to me in the way the structure of the community and how things were managed by all the people who lived there.

I want to share the most positive part of talking to all of the different people about their experiences. It’s one of the things that drew me to this idea in the first place; being part of a community where your participation is needed, your input is critical and the results of your actions are important to everyone else in the community. Basically, these villages are giving people a place to really affect a change in their lives and to help, and be helped, by other people who are in the same situation. It was a very motivating thing to witness and hear about it first-hand.

Back to Portland. In the afternoon, we visited the “R2D2” (Right 2 Dream Too”) community, which was a bit of a one-off from the rest of the locations we visited. This is in the downtown core of Portland, but the focus is very much of an overnight shelter for people to have a safe place to sleep. They are welcome to return on other nights, but the focus is more on a sort of urgency-based situation for people who don’t have anywhere else to go. The dwellings are also much more temporary, most of them being tents instead of actual tiny houses. The unique thing is that it did seem to have a lot more active involvement from social aid organizations, most likely because of the urgent-need focus.

Availability and accessibility of social services is one of the things that seemed to be, unfortunately, very hit or miss with many of the villages we spent time in. Of particular interest to many of the residents we spoke to was having someone they trusted with whom they could talk regularly; a counselor or general health services representative. Many of the residents have issues with trust, anxiety and related issues – it’s tough being homeless and having someone who can be there to talk to and provide assistance and resources is very helpful.

The last place we visited was in Eugene, the Opportunity Village. This was also a bit further out of town, though still walkable to the city center if you didn’t mind walking for an hour or two. It probably helps that Eugene is not a huge city, so it’s easier to get around on foot. One of the interesting things we read about Opportunity Village online was the fact they have been so successful with this organization that they are in the process of fund raising for a second village in another location in the city. We had a great tour of the village by one of the members, who was one of the most direct and forthright of all of the different people we spoke to on the trip. She had been part of the community for some time, and we learned a lot about the things that went wrong or they had real difficulties with when they were starting.

The main challenges they encountered were all about the community. Not in terms of the people within the community, but about they were going to organize and structure themselves. The bylaws, the process for joining, discipline, leaving, settling disputes, all of those things went through a lot of changes in the beginning. This structure and organization (which in all of the places we visited seemed to be quite good) really fascinated me, partially because it’s a big part of my professional background, but mostly because it’s much more difficult with limited resources and so many different interests and people are involved.

On the train and bus ride back to Walla Walla, my mother and I spoke a lot about the community organizational side of things. It didn’t matter the size of these villages we visited, all of them are complex to setup, administer, operate and expand. None of them exist without strong involvement and buy-in from the people who live (or will live) in the village, as well as an organization to support them and set it up. I feel like I am just starting my journey to learn and educate myself about how these types of organizations work, the people who live in the villages and the communities that support them. I can’t wait to find out more.

Below is a chart that compares the different villages together. I put this together based on my discussions with the residents and research provided via the villages websites. The legend that explains the definitions is located below the chart.

Residency Requirements. The "5 rules" refer to the common rules that seem to be used in all of the villages. 1) No violence. 2) No theft. 3) No alcohol or illegal drugs on-site. 4) No persistent, disruptive behavior. 5) everyone must contribute to operation and maintenance of the village.

Operating Structure. Managed by community means that 95%+ of all tasks are done completely by the residents themselves, occasionally with some volunteer help. Quixote Village is different, in that the administrators are paid by the 501c3 non-profit and help to manage and oversee day to day activities.

Social Services Availability. There seem to be three flavors. 1) Regular visits by social services on a scheduled basis. 2) Intermittent visits by different services. Residents must go to city center to obtain their own services for most of the time. 3) Paperwork/admin help to apply for services, though residents must go to city center to obtain the services.

Amenity Availability. E is electricity. H is heating. W is water (for drinking, showers, etc).

Distance from City. All villages are easily accessible by public transit, but many of them are not close to city center (i.e. where services/work/etc is often located).

#Matt #SociallyPositive


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