If you want to know about the nonprofit behind the city’s newest micro-village, you just need to look at the letters in its name. WeShine stands for Welcoming, Empowering, Safe Habitation Initiative with Neighborhood Engagement. People are starting to move into its Parkrose Community Village in Northeast Portland, where they’ll have their own sleeping pod and other basic necessities like toilets, showers and laundry facilities. Residents will also get help accessing services they need and developing financial literacy skills, which can help them to ultimately move from transitional to affordable housing.
Even as this village opens, WeShine is looking ahead — not just to open its next village, but to create a model that can be replicated all over the city. Part of that is creating a kind of “best practices” playbook and sharing ways to fast track the processes with city and county governments. Jan McManus is the executive director of WeShine. We talk with her about WeShine’s approach to homeless shelters and the potential for replicating the design of this micro-village.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. While the City of Portland slowly moves forward with new options for people experiencing homelessness. Local nonprofits are not waiting. They’re creating their own solutions. One of them is called WeShine. The group’s first micro village with about 10 units is opening in East Portland. Residents will have their own sleeping pods and other basic necessities, plus access to services to help them get into permanent housing. But the plan is not for this to be a one-off. WeShine wants to help create a model that can be replicated. Jan McManus is the executive director of WeShine and she joins us now with more. It’s good to have you on TOL.
Jan McManus: Thank you Dave.
Miller: Can you describe what the tiny home village or micro village that you’ve created looks like?
McManus: Sure. We have 11 little pods. Eight of them are eight by eight. So 64 square feet, each one has a little private covered patio area, two windows and a locking door and inside there is space for twin bed or two, and some storage containers and perhaps a chair and a fold-down desk or table. And of course they can also put chairs out on their little patio. So we also have what we call a service pod. So one of our sleeping pods is just for the use of either our WeShine staff or other service partners who come into the village to work with our guests. And then we will have three community buildings: one will be a hygiene building with a shower and two toilets, one will be a kitchenette and laundry building, and the third one will be kind of our living room for meetings and having meals together. And we intend for the entire village to be accessible with ramps as needed. Two of our sleeping pods are a little bigger, 8 by 10, and that’s to accommodate better a couple or a wheelchair user. And the whole compound is surrounded by a 6 ft wooden fence, which we will be working with Gather Make Shelter to have our guests decorate with art. And Gather Make Shelter will also work with us to put plantings in the village, to soften the look and give green space for our folks.
Miller: You’re sort of talking in the future tense and sort of in the present tense. What is the status right now?
McManus: It’s a two-phase process for the permits for the city, the way it works. And we got our first permit to create the sleeping pod configuration and do some basic sewer work, to create the piping that would allow us to hook up to sewer, and put up the fence in Phase One. We are in process of submitting our permits for Phase Two which will allow us to put on the community buildings that I’ve described. We are opening in the next week. We have some people staying there now to provide a security presence in the village. But we’ll be adding in additional people next week, in the sleeping pods. But since we don’t have our community buildings yet, we’ll be using temporary facilities like Porta Potties, a shower service, our barbecue grill, handwashing station and things like that to make the spaces habitable until we can get our community building permits.
Miller: How are residents going to be chosen for this?
McManus: We worked with our host partner, the ParkRose Community United Church of Christ. And WeShine in general is focused on serving some of the most underserved and vulnerable segments of our unhoused population. And together we decided to serve folks who identify as LGBTQIA+, with a priority for those who are, in addition, also black, indigenous people of color. And in addition to being identified as LGBTQIA+, have been camping nearby in the area near our village. And so with that in mind, we also prioritize for those who are female or identify as female, or were assigned female at birth. And those who have other disabilities that make them more vulnerable, or health conditions.
Miller: I imagine though even with the various various demographic categories, you’ve just mentioned that there are going to be many more people who would qualify then can actually live there. You’re talking about a dozen people who can be there at any one time. And I imagine there are many more than that who would qualify.
McManus: Oh definitely. We’ve filled up very quickly and we’re already creating a waiting list. We intend to keep it quite short because we don’t want people to be waiting endlessly on a waiting list. So we’ll just have about the same number on a waiting list as we are accepting. And then as openings occur we’ll add to the waiting list and keep working that way. But yeah, one village is only a tiny tiny bite out of the whole issue.
Miller: How long are you expecting that guests – I think that’s the word you’re using – will stay there?
McManus: We will allow guests to stay up to two years while they’re working on all the various issues they may bring, and needs they bring to the village. So we probably will be starting with many people at the basic level of helping them get their IDs, because so many of them have had IDs stolen when they’ve been camping on the streets. And then we’ll make sure they have some basic benefits like food stamps and healthcare. And then there’s the next layers, that have to do with jobs or some sort of income. And also of course starting the process of looking for what kind of housing options might be available to them.
So there’ll be lots of layers of services we’ll be working on.
Miller: And all of those services are going to be available on site?
McManus: Yes, I mean to to a certain extent and and also to connect people to services off site, but we have our own WeShine staff who will work at so those basic levels, we have a peer support specialist, service and resource coordinator, and as well as a village life coordinator who lives on site. And then we will have volunteers who, our friends of the village, will wrap their arms around the village and provide a variety of services, like helping people fill out online applications, or going with them on the bus to their appointments, or providing communal meals or recreational and social activities. Then we have relationships with some service partners who bring in more complex or sophisticated services or culturally specific services. For example, we’re working with Outside In on bringing a medical van to our site to provide primary care for those who don’t have access to that now on a regular basis. We’re also working with the Providence Behavioral Health, Better Outcomes Through Bridges program, which will be providing intensive care coordination for mental health and substance abuse issues, to our villagers. And then we also have a relationship with Catholic Charities to help provide financial education literacy training, and to help people build a matched savings account where they save some money and then they get matching funds to help them pay for the expense of moving into housing when they’re ready to move.
Miller: This is what’s known as a “low barrier shelter”. Can you remind us what that means?
McManus: Yes, that means that there’s no particular hoops that people have to jump through, in terms of being clean and sober or having criminal background checks or agreeing to treatment before they move in. We just have people interview with us. If they meet the basic criteria and sign a good guest agreement, which sort of talks about the conduct that’s expected of them when they live in the village . . .
Miller: What is that conduct?
McManus: Well. It’s things like treating people with courtesy and respect, no criminal activity, no weapons, no open flames. Keep your pod clean. No hoarding will be allowed, agreeing to attend village council meetings weekly, putting in eight hours a week of sweat equity to help maintain the village, things like that.
Miller: You call this an alternative shelter. Can you describe how, what you’re building and managing is different from, say, the Safe Rest Villages that the city is slowly rolling out?
McManus: Safe Rest Villages could also be considered a form of alternative shelter because they’re not brick and mortar. So alternatives means alternative to traditional congregate settings, or that are more barracks style or dormitory style or motel style, brick and mortar type shelters which are quite expensive to build, and take a long time. So more village style is one type of alternative shelter. Another type would be say an RV or car parking village where people can park their vehicles and then receive other services like toilets and showers and garbage and case management. Or it could be the family promise model, which is where churches allow people to stay for evening shelter in their church buildings for a week at a time. And then people have a day center to go to for their other support services. Or it could even be an autonomous group of tenters and campers who are receiving support from the local government in the form of trash and Porta Potties and shower services and fencing, to help create a secure clean humane campsite.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about a new micro village for houseless people in northeast Portland. It was created by the WeShine nonprofit. Jan McManus is its executive director. You’ve been working with the city and the county to come up with a way to set up this village really quickly. And I think if I understand correctly, to cut through some red tape that can make projects like this really hard to get on to the ground. What’s that been like?
McManus: It’s been a learning process for all of us. The city issued a new set of guidelines called the temporary outdoor shelter program guidelines, in February of this year, 2022. And after working, it was an effort to bring together many departments and come up with a more comprehensive cohesive set of guidelines for people wanting to do the kind of thing we’re doing with our micro village. But part of the problem is that they dealt with the formation of sleeping pods, for example, in a village, but didn’t really address the issue of the need for community buildings to support a group of sleeping pods. Instead, the language referred to the need for a commercial building permit for any community buildings. And that’s what’s caused us to have to have a two-phase process to open our village. And that’s been the delaying issue here in us being able to open fully with all the services we intend. Because the commercial building permit process is quite complex and arduous and has many, many levels of requirements that don’t really seem reasonable or suitable for a temporary outdoor shelter. But we have worked with the city, and we expect that they will waive a number of the requirements that don’t make a lot of sense for us. We are the first ones to go through this process with the city. So once we get through it, we think that it will be kind of a template for future villages, and that we will be able to more or less replicate the same configuration or similar configuration of sleeping pods and community buildings in future villages, and at a much faster rate.
Miller: For the city’s Safe Rest Villages plan, the biggest challenge it seems, has been finding places that are suitable for these sites and that won’t meet insurmountable local backlash, that is on city-owned parcels of land. It seems like you’ve been focusing on, on privately owned land. But what was the search like?
McManus: Well, the search was difficult, but in comparison, I would say that it’s been easier than the search for public lands. Part of our problem was when we started, we were a glimmer in our eyes, but we didn’t have any case examples, to point to, for private landowners here locally. So being the first host to offer us land for building was the challenge we had to overcome. Now that we have a village in place . . .
Miller: How many places did you actually have to ask before you found that place?
McManus: We probably approached at least 50 landowners, by letter, phone call, and email, and trying to work connections. We did focus first on our neighborhoods where our founders lived, because we wanted to walk our talk, but when that didn’t work, we started saying, ‘OK, well, it’s whoever offers us this land, that’s where we’ll go’. And that ended up being on northeast Halsey with the Parkrose Community United Church of Christ.
Miller: It says on your bio on the WeShine page that you live in the Laurelhurst neighborhood. It was striking to me because that’s become one of the Portland neighborhoods that’s been most associated with the particular version of nimby-ism that says, we don’t want these unsanctioned campsites in our neighborhood. And it led to sweeps. It led to some folks putting something like two dozen planters filled with dirt on the street to deter campers from coming back. What’s it been like for you personally to live in Laurelhurst with all that going on, given what your job is?
McManus: I think part of the impetus for WeShine came from folks not only from Laurelhurst, but from our other founding neighborhoods which were Kearns and Sullivan’s Gulch, that we wanted to offer an alternative to our neighbors to some of the approaches used, for example, in Laurelhurst. We wanted to give people something to be FOR, instead of against, and a way to meet our houseless neighbors with hospitality instead of hostility. And so that was part of the impetus for the vision of WeShine. And I must say we have had tremendous support from Laurelhurst neighbors, Kearns neighbors, and Sullivan’s Gulch neighbors, among many, many others. So I just think that it’s not a no neighborhood is a one mind neighborhood, there’s room for alternative points of view and alternative approaches.
Miller: But do you think, do you see an avenue for opening something like a second WeShine village in Kearns or in Laurelhurst or Sullivan’s Gulch, all richer, wider neighborhoods, as opposed to only in places like in East Portland at 122nd?
McManus: I definitely do. I think it will come in time. It’s just a matter of time. And I think the more we replicate this village knowledge, the more neighborhoods and faith communities and nonprofit partners and businesses will step forward.
Miller: What you’re putting forward, what you’re working on, strikes me as a kind of in the middle of a spectrum of housing response to the homelessness crisis. It’s more than a shelter bed, or just a sanctioned place for someone to put up a tent, but it’s obviously not as robust as a full-fledged apartment. Why put your efforts towards this model?
McManus: Having personally been involved in developing housing in the past, I have personal experience with how long and hard it is to develop affordable, permanent housing. And myself and our other founding board members really felt that what we need is something to bridge the gap between living in inhumane conditions on the street, and having access to permanent affordable housing. In fact, PSU studies have shown that the primary reason people can’t get into permanent affordable housing is because there isn’t enough of it. And it will take 3 to 5 years at minimum for there to be a volume of housing available locally, to begin to really make a dent in the problem we’ve created. So we feel that it’s incredibly crucial to have this kind of bridge option, and we think that alternative shelters like ours, or other variations on it, are the way to go, because they’re quicker and cheaper to build than the brick and mortar shelters, and actually are are more favorably received by folks who have been in house because they have a greater degree of autonomy and personalized care. And opportunities to be in a little smaller setting that’s not as triggering or traumatizing as some of the larger settings.
Miller: Just briefly, as I note at the beginning, you don’t want this to be a one-off, you want to put more, perhaps yourselves, and also make this a model that other people can replicate. What do you hope to actually create to make it easier for other groups to do what you’re doing?
McManus: Well, we’ve already started, Dave. We’ve started a group called the Alternative Shelter Network. And right now, I think there’s 35 to 40 members, people who are either interested in building and operating alternative shelters themselves, or who really support the concept of alternative shelter. And we are trying to band together to share data, to learn from each other, and to talk about what are the best practices, and that. Because really, the people who want to help others in this way often are nonprofits with no experience in construction. They don’t know how to go about getting city permits. They just want to offer services to folks, and we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time a new nonprofit comes along, or one steps up to want to do this work. They shouldn’t have to start from scratch every single time.
Miller: Jan McManus, thanks very much for joining us.
McManus: You’re welcome.
Miller: Jan McManus is the executive director of the WeShine nonprofit, which is opening a new tiny home village for houseless people in northeast Portland.
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