Two of 14 tiny homes that will soon populate a city-owned lot in Kenton. This was taken in December, while they were under construction.
Two of 14 tiny homes that will soon populate a city-owned lot in Kenton. This was taken in December, while they were under construction. Karney Hatch

At some point, probably next month, 14 homeless women will move into 14 tiny homes not far from the heart of Kenton.

On one level it's such a small thing—less than 1 percent of the city's unsheltered residents finding temporary homes, while hundreds of others see no end in sight.

On another level it could not be larger.

This new village, informally okayed in a 178-75 vote among Kenton residents Wednesday evening, might ultimately represent a new chapter in how Portland works to ease this growing crisis.

Where for years officials have grappled with whack-a-mole camps or retroactively worked with unsanctioned organized communities after they'd taken root, the city and county are for the first time partnering with grassroots homeless advocates, social service workers, local designers, and others on establishing a new kind of intentional community.

Which means the Kenton Women's Village (a temporary name) is now under pressure. With the hard-won nod of Kenton neighbors and businesses, officials now need to deliver, showing the new community will be what they've envisioned: a welcoming, aesthetic new development that fits well into the fabric of the neighborhood and helps women find permanent homes.

If they can do that over the course of the year-long pilot project set to begin in April, the village model could proliferate in other neighborhoods throughout the city.

"As far as I’m concerned, no neighborhood is going to be exempt from this conversation," Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said at the Wednesday evening meeting, parrying concerns that Kenton was being picked on and hinting she was working up plans through the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which she controls. "What you don't want is the kind of camps that emerge because no one will say yes."

"We can learn a lot from this project," Mayor Ted Wheeler said after her. "This will serve as an opportunity for us to learn, for us to try it." (One woman told me after the meeting Wheeler's brief speech is what sold her on the plan.)

The village, at 2221 N Argyle, will feature 14 innovative tiny homes designed and built last year through the efforts of the Village Coalition, a grassroots network of homeless residents, activists, advocates, designers, architects, and more. At the time we first wrote about that city-funded effort, there were no indications that the "sleeping pods" had a home.

Marc Jolin, director of the countys Joint Office of Homeless Services, explains the village concept on Wednesday.
Marc Jolin, director of the county's Joint Office of Homeless Services, explains the village concept on Wednesday. Dirk VanderHart

That changed quickly, with outgoing Mayor Charlie Hales anxious to see progress on a village concept, which he'd pushed for a while. Officials and advocates held their first meeting with Kenton neighbors in mid-December to pitch the idea—essentially: pods surrounding structures that include laundry, showers, restrooms, and a kitchen, with social services on site.

But people wanted more details, kicking off a months-long process that culminated in last night's vote.

The meeting shook out as the vote suggests. Most Kenton residents spoke in favor of allowing the homeless village for a year-long pilot, while a dedicated and vocal group near the back of the room would not be moved from their opposition.

Most interesting were the people who'd seen their positions evolve since Hales' office first proposed the project in December.

"I came to my first meeting not in favor," said Sheila Mason, a Kenton resident who wound up serving on a committee that studied the proposal. "As I was listening to my own voice asking my questions [at the meeting]… I actually could hear my bias coming through, and these assumptions I was making about people that I really don't know."

Among the things that changed her mind in the intervening months? "These women are already our neighbors. They’re already living here."

That's true—at least in theory. Catholic Charities, which will hold a contract with the county to provide services on the site and will help place its residents into permanent housing, has pledged to prioritize women who've been displaced from housing in Kenton for the 14 homes. The agency has an 80 percent success rate at keeping women in housing, according to its housing program manager, Margi Dechenne.

Under a tentative good neighbor agreement between the city, the county's Joint Office of Homeless Services, Catholic Charities, the Village Coalition, and Kenton neighbors and businesses, Catholic Charities is responsible for the bulk of the work at the village. The Village Coalition will chip in by hosting "social and cultural" events and monitoring the area for "unsanctioned camping," the agreement says. City and County officials are pledging to scour the city to find a new home for the village when its time in Kenton is over.

The ballot
The ballot

As it happens, there may be a hard deadline for the women's village to leave its upcoming home. The Portland Development Commission, which owns the land, is in talks with Transitions Projects about building 72 units of affordable housing on the site. That could begin next year, officials said Wednesday, offering an organic end to the village's time on the lot.

All of this assurance wasn't enough for some. Concerns persisted that the city would keep the village in Kenton longer than indicated, though officials said they'd ask for neighbors' blessing before that happened. Some residents complained about messy camps that have shown up in the area for years, and said the city wasn't accountable for cleaning it up.

"The current condition of our neighborhood and Portland as a whole is embarrassing," said a man named Larry Mills, who's lived in Kenton for decades and was by far the loudest opponent to the new village. "This city has been burying their head in the sand for decade or more. It's time to draw a line in the sand."

He was met with others speaking forcefully the other way. One notable example was Jessie Burke, owner of Posies Bakery & Cafe in Kenton, and also a partner in the Society Hotel in Old Town. Burke spoke about her love for Kenton and ongoing efforts to make it a fun, welcoming place. And she talked of her experience in Old Town, working with city officials to solve a homelessness issue that presents no easy fixes.

"I’ve been trying to talk to the city for three years, trying to kickstart this issue," Burke said. "These are hard problems to solve. It's really easy to complain, but it's really hard to solve a problem."

The vote Kenton residents took Wednesday had no legal teeth—the ballot itself even included a disclaimer noting the vote "will not necessarily determine the final outcome" of the proposal—but officials had pledged not to press forward without the neighborhood's consent.

That the coalition working on the village was able to win that consent is hugely important. If all goes well, this pioneering community might well pave the way for others.

And of course, that the city and county insisted on winning over residents, whether than merely pushing forward with the camp, counts for something, too.

"That just doesn't happen," Kenton Neighborhood Association Chair Tyler Roppe told audience members Wednesday. "I can't emphasize that enough."