On a flatbed trailer in the parking lot of a church on West Main Street in Medford sits a really, really small house. Aqua green with blue trim, it’s got tight double-insulated windows, a little front porch with a roof over it and a door that locks. On the porch, I meet Michael LaConte and his companion.
“This is Khaleesi,” LaConte says. “She’s my service dog. She helps me with my PSD to keep me calm.”
LaConte opens the door and gives me the grand tour.
“Basically, it’s just an 8 by 10, ‘bout 80 square feet, three windows all the way around, and I believe there’s one at the top, too, above the loft there,” he says.
The interior is unpainted plywood: ceiling, walls and floor. It’s about as basic as shelter gets.
“There’s no electricity or running water in it … Pretty much how it would be if I was at my tent, basically.”
LaConte has been homeless for years, camping in various locations around the Bear Creek Greenway, staying one step ahead of the periodic sweeps. Now, he’s on the board of a group that hopes to offer homeless people a cleaner, safer alternative to illegal camping. It’s called Hope Village. The vision is to put 15 of these stripped-down tiny houses on a piece of land with porta-potties, dumpsters and a common kitchen area.
Heather Everett, with the Jackson County Homeless Task Force, says this isn’t meant to be a long-term solution to homelessness.
“This is a place where people can lock up their belongings during the day if they’re looking for work. A place where they can lock the doors at night and be safe from harm or people stealing their things. It’s a step towards transitional housing or permanent housing,” she says.
But, Everett says, “In the absence of any other alternatives, this is the fastest, cheapest way to get safe secure housing available to people immediately.”
The idea is to foster a self-governing community where residents manage the project themselves and enforce safe, sober and responsible behavior. This is a model that’s proven itself over the past two decades in Seattle, Portland, Eugene and other Northwest cities. And, according to urban planner and author Andrew Heben, it’s way cheaper than the standard approach to homelessness.
“Police costs, jail costs, health care costs, court costs. … Basically, the costs of policing the issue rather than looking for tangible solutions,” he says.
Heben says studies have shown the traditional way of dealing with chronically homeless people can cost cities as much as $50,000 per person, per year. He says Opportunity Village, a self-managed tiny house community of the homeless in Eugene, is a smarter way. Heben is a co-founder of that project. He says his experience there – as well as in similar projects around the Northwest – has shown that homeless people will rise to the challenge.
“Just like neighbors in any community, people want to live in a community of some degree of safety and sanitation. And so, when residents are actually given the opportunity to uphold that, what I’ve seen is that they pursue it,” he says.
Now, the Hope Village project in the Rogue Valley is trying to raise the money to buy a parcel of land in Medford. Members are working with local planning officials to make sure the property meets all the necessary codes. Michael LaConte says he hopes to qualify for one of the slots in Hope Village. Having a roof over his head, he says, would mean security and stability in his life.
“The stability part is a major for me. I mean, I haven’t had it for a couple of years and I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like.”
Hope Village is sponsoring overnight stays in the model tiny house this month to raise awareness of the project and to raise funds to buy the land and build more tiny houses. Organizers hope to break ground this fall.