Like many programs that materialized in spring of 2020, the three city-sanctioned tent camps that appeared in central Portland in April of last year were born out of a crisis.
Oregon’s COVID-19 pandemic social distancing rules had just fallen into place. The mandate forced homeless shelters to immediately reduce capacity, leaving hundreds of vulnerable Portlanders to shelter-in-place outdoors in the midst of a still-mysterious pandemic. At the same time, places that unhoused people relied on for basic human needs, like the bathrooms of coffee shops or libraries, shuttered.
In response, homeless advocacy groups partnered with the city to cobble together three outdoor shelters on city property: two along SE Water in the Central Eastside and another in Old Town, near NW Glisan and Broadway. Each fenced-in location hosted 45 tents atop wooden pallets, and offered resources for residents to do laundry, use the bathroom, wash their hands, and cook meals. Much of the supplies were donated, and volunteers helped get the camps off the ground. Within two weeks, the camps—cleverly dubbed Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside, or C3PO—were welcoming residents.
“These three temporary campsite villages demonstrate that we can be creative and constructive in pursuit of public health,” wrote Street Roots Director Kaia Sands in an editorial about the camps’ opening. “It makes me hopeful for what more we can do.”
The C3PO villages were only meant to last three months. Now, more than a year after opening their gates, the trio of villages are transitioning into a more permanent respite for unhoused Portlanders.
The transformation hasn’t been without growing pains.
The camps were originally structured to be self-governed villages, where residents set the rules and largely ran the site’s operations in exchange for tenancy. Now, to continue receiving public funding as outdoor shelters, the villages must be overseen by a nonprofit whose staff call the shots and collect paychecks. Some villagers who felt empowered by the previous structure say the switch is "demoralizing,” while volunteers who helped C3PO get off the ground feel like their hard work to forge a new alternative for homeless Portlanders has been erased. Government agencies, meanwhile, are hopeful that C3PO’s next chapter will offer a road map for future outdoor shelters to follow.
The transition is an opportunity for city leaders—and the community at large—to consider how city-run homeless villages best fit into the region’s response to homelessness.
"We built bonds through just being around each other each day, making big decisions that affect all of us together." —Dregs, QA Village resident
Victory LaFara was one of the first people brought in to set up C3PO villages in April of 2020. LaFara works for homeless service provider JOIN as a support specialist for Dignity Village, the 21-year-old village for unhoused Portlanders in far Northeast Portland. As program director for C3PO, LaFara brought in leadership from Right 2 Dream, Too (R2DToo), another village of unhoused Portlanders located in the Rose Quarter, to collaborate on the emergency project. R2DToo eventually became the lead operator of C3PO through a contract with the city.
LaFara said that under normal circumstances, an organization would have somewhere between three to six months to set up a new shelter or outdoor village. But the threat of COVID-19 didn’t allow for normal circumstances.
“We had 14 days,” LaFara said. “This required extraordinary flexibility, agility, and strategic forethought to open and respond to unforeseeable, unique, highly unusual challenges. Normally, there would be plenty of time to plan and for villagers to develop their skills and community culture organically with lots of community support.”
To accommodate for this limitation, several grassroots organizations and volunteer groups pitched in their time. Sandra Comstock, director of Hygiene4All, donated hygiene services to the villages and coordinated with other mutual aid and nonprofit groups to get the village operating. Comstock said she was inspired and motivated by the kind of collaboration she witnessed on the ground.
“It was a real opportunity to create a new kind of network to respond to need, and so many organizations were able to tap into it,” said Comstock. “It wasn’t being gatekept by another organization. It allowed for innovation and creativity.”
In planning the new villages, LaFara and others sought feedback from prospective residents on what kind of community would make them feel at home. That input left the spaces with a few characteristics not seen at other city-involved shelters. Specifically, organizers allowed the villages to be self-governed, meaning residents would be responsible for setting community rules and deciding who is allowed to join the village (or who should be kicked out). Big decisions would be made in weekly village meetings, where every resident would have equal input. Each resident would be responsible for contributing 16 hours of volunteer time each week to running the community, whether that meant sanitizing public areas, monitoring the front entrance of the village, or picking up trash. The larger organizational responsibilities fell on staff paid by R2DToo.
The villages also focused on accommodating homeless populations that are uniquely vulnerable living on the streets or in traditional shelter settings. Organizers declared one village on SE Water Ave to be the BIPOC Village, welcoming Black, Indigenous, and people of color, while the other SE Water Ave village—the Queer Affinity Village—was reserved for LGBTQIA+ residents. The third, Old Town Village, didn’t center on any particular identity.
“That was a major factor that attracted us to this project,” said Katie Cox, director of the Equi Institute, a community health organization that focused on LGBTQI+ health care and partnered with C3PO early on.
Many unhoused Portlanders who didn’t feel supported by the region’s larger shelter system were drawn to C3PO villages.
“I never stayed in a shelter, since I had only heard bad things about them,” said Dregs, a resident at the QA Village who asked the Mercury to be identified by his nickname out of privacy concerns. “But after I visited my friend at the QA camp, I applied to live there. As a queer camp, I felt welcome, and I immediately saw the amount of equal control people had there. That was appealing.”
Dregs, who moved into the QA Village in September 2020, has seen the community through many changes. That winter, the tents dotting the property were upgraded to enclosed huts with heat and electricity. By March 2021, Dregs had been offered a job by R2DToo to coordinate the village’s food services. Through the position, Dregs was able to improve the quality of meals for residents with food allergies or restrictions, and create strong bonds with organizations outside of the village eager to donate food. By investing time and energy into the village, Dregs said villagers felt true ownership of their home.
“We built bonds through just being around each other each day, making big decisions that affect all of us together,” said Dregs. “If someone was causing harm to our community, we were quick to address the problem with them… a lot of times it was ‘You either have to quit this or you’re leaving.’ We kept each other safe.”
Other residents told the Mercury that their stay at C3PO villages allowed them a chance to relax for the first time in years after living on the streets. It gave people a chance to craft longer-term plans for their lives that stretched beyond what they were going to eat for dinner or where they’d be able to safely sleep at night.
A year into their creation, it still wasn’t clear how long the once-temporary villages were expected to last. Their fate was made a bit more permanent in June, when Multnomah County and the city funneled a combined $4.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars into the three sites.
Fahad, another QA villager, said this feeling of community was bolstered by the relationship residents had with other homeless people who lived outside near their C3PO property. Fahad is an immigrant seeking asylum in the US, and requested the Mercury not use his last name out of privacy concerns. Fahad found the QA Village after months of sleeping in a rental car or in a traditional indoor shelter.
Moving into the QA Village brought Fahad an increased sense of privacy and independence, and allowed him time to work on the immigration process. One of his favorite responsibilities at the village was working at the front gate during night shifts, when other unhoused people would stop by asking for assistance.
“I’d hand out blankets, clean syringes, food, water, and Narcan,” said Fahad. “It was very rewarding to be able to help people.”
This was one of the first things to go in November 2021.
In September, the city transferred leadership of C3PO villages to a new nonprofit called All Good NW. R2DToo had decided months earlier to cede oversight of the village program, as the nonprofit’s leaders saw their goals diverge from what local government had in mind for C3PO villages moving forward.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), the department shared by the city and Multnomah County, oversees the contractors that run homeless villages and other shelter spaces across the region. According to a letter sent to the Mercury by the R2DToo board, the nonprofit felt that JOHS was stripping the grassroots village program of its identity by urging it to follow traditional shelter models. R2DToo was eager to keep the village running with volunteer and paid work by residents—similar to how the Right 2 Dream, Too village operates—but was urged by JOHS to hire outside staff to run the three villages.
“We think we have demonstrated that many of Portland’s houseless residents are extremely capable and can manage themselves without the intensive and expensive oversight being utilized in JOHS’s model,” reads the letter from the R2DToo board. “The resources spent on C3PO could easily have paid for market-rate housing for all villagers at the camps, with money left over for needed services, which the camps were also doing their best to provide.”
The nonprofit board was also concerned that the villages were contributing to a system that would allow the city to punish unhoused people. Because of a 2017 Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruling, homeless Portlanders are prohibited from being penalized for sleeping on public property, unless the city can provide overnight shelter. Under that rule, the city could potentially penalize unhoused people who don’t agree to move into shelter spaces like the C3PO villages.
“While we support the creation of places where people can go to be safe, sleep, eat, use the bathroom, access health care, and work to find jobs and housing,” the R2DToo board writes, “we are concerned that the creation of these spaces will be used as justification for the continued criminalization of homelessness on Portland’s streets.”
R2DToo’s departure left a void of leadership that JOHS scrambled to fill. According to Denis Theriault, a spokesperson for JOHS, the office asked nearly every local homeless service nonprofit to take over C3PO’s management, but most refused. According to Theriault, that’s due to the unavoidable challenge of restructuring the villages’ autonomous management structure.
“There are a lot of requirements that come with getting a contract,” said Theriault. “There is a part of that that is antithetical to a more grassroots model, which is how C3PO began. So there’s a disconnect there and a transition that needs to be made. Transitions are generally difficult.”
It was a challenge that fledgling nonprofit All Good NW was willing to take on. All Good sprung out of Do Good Multnomah, a nonprofit that focuses on creating shelter spaces for homeless veterans. Do Good Multnomah currently operates St. John’s Village and the Veteran’s Village in Clackamas—two transitional housing communities composed of tiny shelters on public property. While All Good is a standalone nonprofit, it focuses on projects similar to those undertaken by Do Good, and is led by former Do Good employee Andy Goebel. Goebel said he saw C3PO management as an opportunity to take the “Do Good model” to shelters for unhoused Portlanders.
“I was involved in the design and development of St. Johns Village” said Goebel. “To me, that’s the gold standard of alternative sheltering in a village model. I knew the transition was going to be hard. What we were not prepared for was the tremendous amount of energy we would need to put infrastructure in these locations.”
Goebel said that, because the C3PO villages were crafted for short-term use, there was little thought put into long-term infrastructure needs, like plumbing and electricity. Only shortly before Goebel took over did the city bring in flushing toilets to replace the long-standing porta-potties and install laundry services on site. The QA Village, which is scheduled to be relocated in the new year, remains the only C3PO village without these amenities.
"We are concerned that the creation of these spaces will be used as justification for the continued criminalization of homelessness on Portland’s streets." —Letter from Right 2 Dream, Too board members
All Good took over management of the three villages in November. Residents said they could tell that there was a change in leadership almost overnight. Villages suddenly saw their three daily meals reduced to two, locks placed on community storage units, and a restriction on giving away supplies to homeless people who weren’t residents. All Good brought on 60 staff to replace the work previously being done by volunteers and residents—and then some. Unlike the earlier iteration of C3PO villages, All Good hired case workers to work directly with residents to help them with anything from securing permanent housing to applying for health care. All Good informed all residents who had been employed by R2DToo that they could keep their jobs only if they agreed to move out of the village within six months.
“It was a compromise we made,” said Goebel. “We were hesitant to take on the kind of HR issues that come with having program staff that are also program participants. It could be a liability.”
All Good also did away with the autonomous structure that had attracted so many to C3PO villages. The new management kept the weekly village meetings, but residents said the overall tone changed.
“We used to have discussions and then make decisions together, but now at the meetings, we’re just being told what decisions have already been made without our input,” said Dregs. “It’s demoralizing not to have control of your own home.”
Dregs said that, with the arrival of All Good, the sense of community felt at the QA Village was dampened. People have stopped hanging out in common spaces, and instead leave the property to meet up in places where they feel more comfortable.
Dregs was one of at least six village residents laid off from their job at C3PO shortly after All Good took over. Dregs said they weren’t offered any alternative form of employment.
Longtime C3PO staff also lost employment since the management change, including Jules, an employee at the Old Town Village. Jules asked to use a pseudonym, as they fear publicizing their actual name could result in retribution from JOHS. Jules joined C3PO staff in June 2020, and played a pivotal role in creating structure and systems within the new communities. In Jules’ mind, they worked for village residents, and made sure each decision made was something residents wanted.
Jules described the shift in management under All Good as a moment of grief. Jules remembers All Good holding a meeting with C3PO staff shortly after the nonprofit acquired the three villages.
“I remember they told us that they love the spirit of what we’re doing, but that their ultimate priority is liability,” Jules recalled.
From that point onward, Jules said, “It was very obvious we were training our replacements.” Jules was fired in early November, after being told they weren’t a “good fit” for the new staff. Several other longtime staff have been fired since. Jules said the most difficult part was seeing villagers react to the change in oversight.
“People were really upset,” Jules said. “For many, this was the first time that they were able to make decisions about their community. That brought people a lot of dignity and self-worth. Losing that autonomy was heartbreaking to people, and they expressed that to me.”
Jules saw residents who had become confident since moving into the villages shut down and stop engaging in community projects. This response didn’t come as a surprise to Jules.
“When you’ve been living in an oppressive situation and find something liberating, and then see that freedom reverted again, it’s easy to give up and give in,” Jules said.
Jules believes that, if JOHS had helped village residents form their own nonprofit, they could have easily become self-sustaining without needing much financial investment.
“These villages were essentially running themselves,” said Jules. “And they were really, really close to showing that that’s possible. But then All Good came in, chopped down a tree and made a table.”
The governance structure of homeless villages is something that has divided Portland’s homeless service programs in the past. Losing a self-governance model is what drove residents at Hazelnut Grove, an autonomously-run tiny home village in North Portland, to protest a proposed closure and relocation to St. Johns Village, which is managed by a nonprofit. Hazelnut Grove remains open and self-governed today.
"When you’ve been living in an oppressive situation and find something liberating, and then see that freedom reverted again, it’s easy to give up and give in." Jules, former C3PO employee
Goebel said he and his staff value the uniqueness of the original C3PO villages, and doesn’t see All Good stifling the community it was hired to oversee.
“These villages came together as a response to an emergency,” said Goebel. “To see what they built as a community and what they pulled together in such a brief amount of time, we want to honor that as much as possible.”
“That said,” he continued, “these are no longer villages by way of residents. This is an alternative shelter run by a nonprofit.”
Goebel said the changes in meals, access to supplies, volunteer shifts, and the ability to disperse resources to non-residents are all in accordance with the contract All Good signed to oversee C3PO. But, he said, if residents take issue with these changes, they can be adapted over time.
“We are human beings who want to care for other human beings,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is retraumatize people.”
The new C3PO model is in alignment with how other publicly funded homeless shelters and transitional housing programs operate in Portland, and may help lay the groundwork for more outdoor shelters on the horizon.
In June, City Commissioner Dan Ryan announced a plan to open six “Safe Rest Villages”—or, outdoor shelters made up of small shelters and bathroom facilities—across the city by the end of the year. While the timeline has been extended, the city is still on track to begin opening these new spaces for homeless Portlanders in 2022. According to Bryan Aptekar, a spokesperson for Ryan’s program, the goal is for these new villages to operate similarly to C3PO properties.
“There might be subtle differences,” said Aptekar. “But they should be pretty similar.”
As the pandemic eventually wanes, allowing indoor homeless shelters to slowly return to their original capacity limits, Portland’s homelessness crisis isn’t expected to go away. That’s why city and county officials are both invested in the next chapter for C3PO villages and other outdoor shelters.
“[C3PO villages] help at least one hundred people every night,” said JOHS’ Theriault. “That is a thing we’re going to need after COVID. This kind of urgency isn’t going away.”
The grassroots providers who helped create C3PO also support a future of villages for unhoused Portlanders. But many want to see the lessons from C3PO reflected in future models. For JOIN’s LaFara, that means giving villagers resources to form their own nonprofit to govern their own communities, instead of relying on outside providers. While LaFara left their work at C3PO in June after a year of intensive work, LaFara still works closely with Dignity Village. Both Dignity Village and the R2DToo village operate under their own nonprofits.
“I think the county could create more positions like mine to help start new villages or support expansion of existing villages,” said LaFara. “Those villages could employ staff from organizations that support their model. Staff working for a village must be dedicated to and focused on supporting village development, rather than babysitting property and breaking up the occasional fight.”
Jules, the former C3PO employee, said it comes down to trust.
“With villages, you create an opportunity to build a trustworthy community,” Jules said. “And when people create their own community, they are more likely to stay and respect how things are done.”
That trust has all but dissolved within the three C3PO villages. Many of the groups that volunteered time and resources early on, like the Equi Institute, no longer feel welcome in the All Good villages—cutting residents off from critical services. Dregs has stopped attending weekly meetings, after realizing that villager’s input is no longer considered in community decisions. Fahad said the new management has created an environment where residents feel forced to pick sides and form alliances to get support. Both residents said they are considering moving out.
“I don't think they realize how destabilizing this transition has been for us,” said Dregs. “Even small gestures of trust can give us stability. But maybe it’s easier for the bottom line to just treat us like children.”