IN A CLATTERING lot behind Benson Polytechnic High School, the future of Portland homeless camps is coming together piece by piece.
Two or three days a week, 100 of the school's freshmen have been taking up saws and ladders, hammers and levels, and slowly building what teacher Tim Hryciw calls "basically finished garden sheds"—64 square feet, with two windows and a door.
For the school, it's an engaging way of teaching geometry, clearly enjoyable to the 14-year-olds busying themselves around the lot on a recent Monday. For the City of Portland, it's a way to tinker with how homeless camps will soon look in this city.
The four structures being built behind Benson today won't just house homeless people when they're completed in coming weeks. The city says they'll also serve as prototypes for an untold number of similar structures going forward—"sleeping pods" that can be cheaply and quickly built for organized camps as Portland wrestles with a housing emergency.
"The whole idea is to mass produce," says Josh Alpert, chief of staff to Mayor Charlie Hales. "Clearly there is a demand for camps and it's not going to end any time soon."
Welcome to the next step in Hales' strategy to combat an increasingly visible homelessness problem. As business groups and neighborhoods take up legal and rhetorical arms against the tents that dot the landscape, officials are quietly working toward a system where these small sheds, pre-approved by city code enforcers, can be built and mobilized en masse, and connected to sites with social services.
The sleeping pods—also weirdly called "hard tents" by city officials keen on ensuring they're allowable under Portland's zoning code—were mentioned when Hales rolled out a newly permissive camping policy in early February. Back then, Alpert was calling them "disaster relief pods," and it was unclear where they'd come from.
That question is quickly resolving itself.
At Benson, in the "tech geometry" course Hryciw began a couple of years back, the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) is working with the freshmen on a plan that will meet code standards for a small, habitable structure. It has to be smaller than 200 square feet, with no electricity or plumbing. It has to be stronger than an average shed, built to withstand gales and damp mud. And, perhaps most importantly, it has to be portable.
The goal is to get BDS to formally sign off on a design that can be replicated at sites zoned for "community service" use, with no need for construction permits. (It's the same zoning the city's using to justify relocating rest area Right 2 Dream Too to the Central Eastside, a move that's being challenged by nearby businesses.)
"We promised four [units]," Hryciw said recently, amid an unending string of questions from students. "If I were smart, I would have said three. We've been cranking."
As it progresses toward approved blueprints, the city's also working with a grassroots group made up of existing organized encampments, advocates, and a steadily growing stream of nonprofits and neighborhood representatives. This group, calling itself the "Village Coalition," came together a few months back through the ReBuilding Center on North Mississippi. It meets every other week.
"We're trying to learn what may work to address the housing crisis from the perspective of those who are houseless," says ReBuilding Center Executive Director Stephen Reichard. "I think that everybody in the coalition feels it's part of their job to do that."
The Village Coalition quickly landed on a suggestion: If the group could identify a warehouse where it could build tiny homes, the space could serve as a training ground for homeless people seeking new skills, and a handy source for the pods the city's been seeking.
Hales' people agreed to help. Alpert is talking with labor organizations about offering apprenticeship programs to houseless residents, and the city's looking at sourcing materials via a new law that ensures older homes are taken apart piece by piece.
City staffers are also trying to find a warehouse.
"The city is currently looking to see if there are any warehouses within the city-owned properties to be considered as a staging and training facility for the production of sleeping pods," says Bob Kieta, a recently retired city facilities manager who's been helping Hales with his homelessness efforts.
Under the city's plans for a "community village system," Kieta says, the sleeping pods would be clustered around a central building that has toilets, showers, and a kitchen. Those services hubs would have to be at least 170 square feet for every 10 pods.
"Sleeping pod camps are seen as transitional spaces into permanent housing," Kieta says, "and as populations move and needs in different areas grow, we will be able to move the sleeping pods to address the housing and shelter needs of different communities."
Sites like the one Kieta's proposing have been successful in places like Eugene. But they might also be roped into a lawsuit filed recently against Hales and the City of Portland, which argues, in part, that Portland has exceeded a state limit on transitional camping sites.
Officials have been trying to figure out how to rapidly produce sleeping pods for much of 2016. Local architect Mark Lakeman remembers a call he got from the city roughly four months ago "asking where they could rapidly get a bunch of tiny homes."
"I said there's nobody who has this kind of stuff in stock in a way the city could afford," says Lakeman, who's been working with the Village Coalition. "The best thing we could do is get a big warehouse and some skilled carpenters. They go, 'That's too messy and we don't do things like that.'"
Now, it appears, the city does things like that.
Hales, in fact, has long had an interest in using tiny homes as a balm for the city's affordability crisis. In August 2014, the Mercury reported on the possibility that the mayor would support small affordable communities on city property. The homes being proposed under that plan would have been more expensive than the "sleeping pods" under construction these days—something like $12,000 a pop compared to the $1,500 officials are shooting for now.
They never panned out. The latest effort seems more certain.
"We are actually very, very close to being able to talk about our first sanctioned camp," Alpert says, meaning the first organized camp under Hales' months-old policies.
But there's an unavoidable question that permeates all of these plans: Even if they survive legal challenges, how long will new pod camps be around? After all, Hales is only in office for another eight months. Ted Wheeler, the person most likely to replace him according to what little polling we've seen, has repeatedly voiced misgivings about temporary camps.
"I don't think they're compassionate," Wheeler said at a KATU-sponsored mayoral forum on Monday.