Research out of Portland finds promise in pod villages for unhoused people

By Tiffany Camhi (OPB), Crystal Ligori (OPB) and Sage Van Wing (OPB)
April 9, 2022 1 p.m.

Portland is home to Dignity Village, one of the first and longest-running homeless pod villages. More of these communities have been established around Portland and other cities in recent years as one of the many ways to address the needs of people who are living on the street. A new report from Portland State University found that a majority of people living in these tiny villages are satisfied and that neighbors who live next to these communities grow less concerned over time.

People stand at the door of a small shelter

Chris Foss, right, and Tiecha Vannoy move into a new pod setup by the city in the Old Town district in Portland, Ore., in this file photo from 2020.

Craig Mitchelldyer / AP

OPB’s Tiffany Camhi recently spoke with Todd Ferry, the lead writer and researcher of the report. He is also a senior research associate and faculty fellow at Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design and a co-founder of the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative.

Camhi: Your team surveyed residents and neighbors of six different villages in Portland. They’re all a little bit different. But can you just give us a sense of what a pod village looks like and how it works?

Ferry: There are three key factors. One is that there are individual non-congregate units, often called pods, for individual sleeping quarters with a shared common facility that includes kitchens, bathrooms, gathering spaces. Another element is that there are some community agreements and shared behavior and goals. And then a third piece is that there’s agency among the villagers over the village social and physical fabric. That’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about villages. And within those six villages, there’s a range in terms of a village that’s managed by a nonprofit versus those that are fully self-governed.


Camhi: So one of your key findings in your study was that it helps for villagers to have some agency in decision making. What kind of advice would you give a city that is thinking about setting up a pod village?

Ferry: I think it’s clear that we need to go beyond simply the physical components and the architectural look of a village, and really think about the social infrastructure and its impacts. So while self-governance might not be possible in all cases, thinking about how to build an agency can be hugely impactful. The Clackamas County Veterans Village for example, is a managed village, but they have a community council where villagers are elected by other villagers and have some say over aspects of the village. I think the more agency we can offer to villagers, the better, is what we’re finding.

Camhi: Your research also found that people who live in neighborhoods near these villages are often wary of them before they even arrive and that they become less concerned over time. What’s your biggest takeaway from talking to neighbors who live around these villages?

Ferry: Often when a village is being planned in the neighborhood, there’s a reaction from neighbors and sometimes the minority with the loudest voices kind of take up a lot of space and energy. But ultimately the fears that are promoting that kind of energy are not founded. And, by the end, often we found people who went from being really against villages to being some of their biggest advocates. And so while it’s important to start to think about neighborhood impact and building those relationships to have a positive experience for the villagers, we shouldn’t give so much attention to how neighbors feel about it.

Camhi: The report found that the demographics of people utilizing the tiny pod villages in Portland are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. That’s despite Black, Indigenous and other people of color making up 40% of Portland’s homeless population. How do you account for that? And how can BIPOC people be better served by this tiny village model?

Ferry: There are a range of factors that I think are that are resulting in villages being largely white and male and what we’re seeing is that we can change that with certain ways that villages are set up during the design and development stage and the way that they’re managed. So, some recommendations that we have in our report include: supporting diverse leaders in villages. If people experiencing homelessness are starting to want to start a village themselves and particularly if they’re people of color, supporting that can lead to more diverse villages Also, people of color serving as village support staff has a big impact. We saw with one village that when some of the management was led by a person of color, that it greatly increased the number of villagers of color. And changing intake protocols to include that racism is a significant factor towards the person’s vulnerability for experiencing homelessness and kind of acknowledging that people of color are disproportionately experiencing homelessness is another way to make sure that these are more equitable.

Camhi: Was there anything in this study that surprised you?

Ferry: There were quite a lot of things that surprised me. I come from the architecture field and so thinking about how we can design villages better from a built environment perspective was of particular interest. Finding that there wasn’t so much of an impact on whether the pods all look the same or whether they all look different didn’t matter nearly as much, for example, as just being able to have flexibility within the interior of the pod and that often there were physical elements such as the closeness of pods that didn’t make as much of a difference if there was a more organic layout than if they were further apart, but spaced more in a grid. The perception that the neighbors were closer had a big difference based on simply the layout rather than actual dimensions. There was an aversion to boxier pods even if it increased square footage because a lot of the people who live in villages might have had a negative experience with institutions in the past that it might be triggering to have more of a boxy pod. And so sacrificing some of that square footage for form that might offer more versatility and not feel enclosed.