A few years ago, when Gabe Piechowicz decided to change careers from logging to religious ministry, he didn’t imagine that his work would be almost exclusively focused on helping people get off the streets in Eugene. But shortly into his new career, he was calling local shelters to help find a place for some of his church’s neighbors, and Dan Bryant answered his phone.
Bryant is the founder and director of Opportunity Village, one of Oregon’s first village-model temporary shelters, informed by Dignity Village in Portland. Piechowicz ended up working at Opportunity Village but ultimately began his own ministry in a separate housing program he founded called Everyone Village. EV, as it’s called for short, is on a four acre piece of land that was essentially donated. There’s a warehouse that’s been converted into a community meeting space, kitchen and office, as well as a separate building with full plumbing that has showers, toilets and a washer/dryer. There are 60 structures here, all with electricity: tiny homes called “cottages of hope,” white prefabricated sheds and RVs that are parked inside the lot.
The village is self-governed, with expectations, rules and requirements. The people who live here are getting back on their feet, overcoming—and in the process of overcoming —a variety of social and economic challenges. Some of them joined us and shared their story when we visited EV recently and recorded a show as part of a solutions-oriented series focused on some of Oregon’s biggest problems.
Our guests included: Dan Bryant of Opportunity Village; Gabe Piechowicz of Everyone Village; Brittany Quick-Warner of the Eugene Chamber of Commerce; as well as villagers Laura Dwinell, Sam Jones and Terri Kulick, and former Opportunity villager, Paul Miller.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Today we have the latest installment in our series of conversations about some of Oregon’s most urgent problems, with a focus on possible solutions. About two years ago, Pastor Gabe Piechowicz started a new temporary housing development of small cottages for people experiencing homelessness in Eugene. It’s called Everyone Village. We are in front, right now, of a small audience from the Village, today. There are about 60 units here now with plans to double that in the coming years. There’s a communal kitchen and community garden and a bottle redemption site.
Over the course of this hour, we’re going to talk to current and former residents of the Village and the older site, Opportunity Village, that this was modeled on. We’re also going to talk to the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce here to hear how the business community is responding to homelessness. But we start with Pastor Gabe Piechowicz. Thanks very much for letting us take over your space. I really appreciate it.
Gabe Piechowicz: Yeah, we’re glad to have you and it’s an awesome morning here at Everyone Village and a fine way to have a Friday.
Miller: So, I feel like we could spend an hour talking about your own personal journey to where you are now, and to becoming a pastor as a kind of second career after being a logger, but I’m not gonna do that, even though there’s a part that wants to turn this into a two- hour show. So I just want to zoom forward. After you became a pastor, how long was it before addressing homelessness in various forms became, seemingly, your central mission?
Piechowicz: Really quickly. So my first post in vocational ministry was helping an older church close in a graceful way, have the parishioners find new homes, and sell the church building. And in the process of that, which took about a year and a half or so, just one day happened to go across the street to the 7-Eleven for a soda and noticed a handful of gentlemen on the street corner kind of flying some signs and went over, introduced myself. And one of them is kind of famous in town as being dressed as a pirate consistently. And so I said, I got to know this guy, and we became friends.
Over time, I would just chit-chat them up and then the rain started to fall, that early fall. And I said, man, if these are my friends and it’s raining and I have a covered porch on the church, this seems like the friend-move here is to let them sleep on the porch to get out of the weather.
Miller: What followed that?
Piechowicz: A lot. So, we invited them up and at first, didn’t really know anything about it. At that point in my life, I had probably a more common experience with homelessness in that I had seen it, handed some resources out the window of my car here and there, but this was my first time just getting to know folks experiencing houselessness. And once they got settled, more came and it grew very quickly and I got in over my head pretty rapidly.
Miller: What did the community say…the existing congregation say about what you were doing?
Piechowicz: It was a big struggle. It had been a more traditional North American church since 1952. So quite a long time at that point, and this was their first adventure kind of leaning into this space in our community as well. So it was difficult to navigate the tensions and relationships around it.
Miller: When did you end up hooking up with Dan, who is right next to us, Dan Bryant, who is the co-founder and executive director of Opportunity Village?
Piechowicz: So, we got through COVID and finally got a bidder for the sale of the church building, did sell, and then at that point, that group of folks living on the porch of the church had become a family. And so I thought, man, the last thing that we’ve got to do here is break them up. They’ve become a support system for each other. So I just started calling, and not having any real toe in the social service network of Eugene at all at that point, just started calling providers on the Google machine. And Dan answered, he was the only one that called me back, and we had coffee and I told him my situation and I said, could you help me find a place for these guys to go to stay as a family unit? And he had an opportunity. And so Dan was a savior for that group and myself.
We moved them from the church porch over to one of Dan’s locations, and then I’ll never forget one day we’re getting done settling the move, and Dan’s like, I gotta go, I gotta get a job description online. And I’m like, really what kind of job? And he said, I need help running some of my sites. And I said, I kind of want a job. So I applied and Dan hired me on, to help him run some of his micro sites.
Miller: Dan, what is Opportunity Village? We’ve talked before but it was eons ago, in terms of lifetime, something like six or seven years ago...
Dan Bryant: At least, I think, 2015 or so. Opportunity Village was the first sanctioned, non-congregate shelter in the state of Oregon, other than Dignity Village in Portland. In fact, when we started the Opportunity Village, we had several conversations with the folks at Dignity Village and got our initial community relations policy from them. At the time I was pastor of First Christian Church in the heart of Eugene - similar to Gabe, except this was an established congregation that had been there since 1866 - still going strong. But we were doing a lot of work with unhoused people there at the church and we had a free breakfast that had about 300 people. And we made an announcement at one of those breakfasts and said, ‘Hey, we want to create this village that’s going to be semi self-managed. Anyone who’s interested, stay behind and meet with us.’
And so we had a group of 15 unhoused people that we met with over a period of three months, talked to the people at Dignity Village, developed our community guidelines that they all agreed, this is how we want to live, and went to the City of Eugene. Got the city to provide an acre of property for us, City council approved on a 6-to-2 vote and set up that Village with those 15. And then a lot of volunteers - and that’s all we were, was a volunteer organization - built that village over a period of nine months, gradually grew up from that initial group of 15 to about 35 as we built more structure. We called them tiny homes, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They’re really sleeping cabins, just little tiny structures, 8x8, 8x10. The conestoga is built by another nonprofit, Community Supported Shelters here in Eugene, that look like conestoga wagons…at any rate, a mixture of structures that we opened then in the summer of 2013 and just closed them. In fact, I just came from that site. We’re in the process of closing it down, moving to a new site that’s going to be bigger and better. But 10 years of operation of that site, and that was just the start of our nonprofit. We actually grew from that to become an affordable housing agency called Square One Villages. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Miller: If we roughly categorize different interventions for homelessness into emergency shelters, temporary or transitional housing sort of communities, like here and what you’re talking about, Opportunity Village - tiny pallet-shelters or cabins - and then permanent affordable housing. Why is it that you have focused, at least at first, on that middle version?
Bryant: So, we drew heavily on the work and of the experience of our Project Director Andrew Heben, who’s an urban planner and had spent a summer living in a couple of projects back in the Midwest, and came with these concepts of how to do a self-managed village. And we adopted that model for a couple of reasons. One, just cost. Building a shelter is expensive, building a village with very simple structures, even tents, doesn’t take a lot of money. Second, giving the villagers themselves that sense of dignity that they are in charge of their lives and empowering them to take charge of their lives, just giving them a safe place to be, so that they can go about other things that they need to do. And that sense of being in charge, as opposed to living in a shelter where somebody else tells you when you have to get up, when you have to eat and, and all the rules that you have to go by, I think just gives people a stronger sense of dignity and self worth. And we found, in fact, that over half of the villagers that we began with moved out of an existing shelter to come into our village just for that reason.
So I’m just a big believer in the model and it turns out during the pandemic, it’s the best model to have…
Miller: Compared to congregate shelter where…
Bryant: …Yeah, a non-congregate shelter where you all have your own sleeping shelter. You don’t have to worry about the person snoring next door and it’s safer in a pandemic, frankly. We had very little problems with COVID.
Miller: Laura Dwinell is with us in the audience here, a resident of Everyone Village. Thanks for sitting down with us.
Laura Dwinell: Hi.
Miller: My understanding is that you’ve dealt with homelessness in various forms for something like a decade – camping, living in vehicles, couch surfing. How did you end up here?
Dwinell: Well, let’s see, actually I met Gabe through him helping a friend of mine when she was pregnant get into one of the other church houses, or the temporary housing that they had at that time, and we helped her move. And so that was the very first time that I had met him and we discussed, then, kind of threw it around a little bit, wanting to meet and get off the streets ourselves. He was just getting started with everything at that time. So, it took a little while and we ended up living on 13th Street and at Washington/Jefferson, being that they started closing them down.
Miller: So you’d lived in a tent and then you’d get swept to some other place?
Dwinell: Yes, 13th Street was closed down and everybody was moved to Washington/Jefferson Park. And then not too long after that, they closed Washington/Jefferson down and when they did, Gabe had just gotten this place going probably a few months, I guess he’d had it going, and he came through and asked people who wanted to get in and get off the streets. And that’s what we wanted, we were ready.
So, we ended up here, we took the bus and came in here and I can say I’ve been here ever since. You know, everybody has a lot of struggles in their lives and it’s work, it’s always work to come in and get out of the street life and into normal living. And so I can’t say that it happened right away, but because of coming here, I can honestly say that there has been so much growth and so much opportunity for the change that I have experienced in my life now.
Miller: What are some of those changes?
Dwinell: Well, I ended up with a heart problem since I’ve been here due to drug addiction, obviously. I’m older, so it was bound to happen. But I went to the hospital with 10% of my heart left. I was there 10 days and they told me that I was lucky, that if I had come in a day later, I would have not made it. And so I can say I spent 10 days in there, they offered me hospice. It was very serious. And so, I wasn’t ready for that and I chose to come back here. They gave me a nurse. I came into my little room, I cried and I was so grateful to not be on the street, and to have that little bit of space and make those changes because I haven’t looked back. I wasn’t ready to lay down and I could have gotten an apartment, I was told, with hospice and everything, and you know what, I didn’t want to leave here. I wasn’t ready to go do hospice. I wasn’t ready to give up my friends and everything I had here. I was comfortable. And I can honestly say that because of this opportunity and this little bit of space that I have, I’ve gone from 10% of my heart back to 25%.
I have no nurse. I have a job now. My health is very good. I work here. The job that they offer here has gotten me a truck. It’s things that I haven’t had in many, many years. So I have a small home that I call home. I have a vehicle now. I have a job and I’m on my way up from here.
Miller: When I did a little walking tour myself, before we started talking, I saw one of the residents walking from a bathroom and then going to what I imagine was their home with keys, and unlocking this small home and going inside it. What does it mean to you just to have your own keys and a place that you can lock?
Dwinell: Everything, because out on the street you don’t have any of that, I mean, it’s just everybody is taking everything from everybody. And so to be able to come in here, it doesn’t matter how small it is, it doesn’t matter that it’s like a little metal house or if you got one of the nicer ones, which I now have. But just to have that space and lock your door and know your stuff is safe, and to come in every night and be warm, it means it means everything, you know?
Miller: You mentioned your job. Am I right that you work at the Redemption Center? …
Dwinell: The Bottle Shop.
Miller: …The Bottle Shop, which is just 30 feet this way. Do you have conversations with people who come in with bags of cans or bottles, who don’t live here?
Dwinell: Oh, yeah!
Miller: What do you talk about with them?
Dwinell: You know, we do converse over the cans and how well this works for them, especially because down at the other bottle drop they have limits, things like that. So here we don’t have that. And so that’s a big thing for them to be able to come in and get that taken care of.
Miller: I guess maybe you answered the question. But what I was wondering is if you see people who are still living on the street somewhere, if you ever try to pull them aside to say, ‘Hey, here’s how I turned my life around, this is what you might consider..or is that not something you feel like you can do?’
Dwinell: Probably more so with other…not so much here. A lot of the people that come here, they have that vehicle, they have homes or trailers or they’re pretty much in a situation where they’re doing OK. But, there’s been a few people that I’ve talked to, people that have the same condition that I do, girls and things that are in a tough spot still out there on the street using and things like that. And since my heart condition happened, that’s actually the kind of people that I’ve met that I’ve talked to that I’ve offered this to and explained this to, that if they want to make that change and better themselves, this is what I’ve done, and this is where I’ve been at when I did it, and that’s open for anybody who wants that.
Miller: You mentioned that you have a job now, you have your own vehicle now, where do you want to be, say, a year from now? I mean, you also mentioned that when you were given the opportunity to have your own apartment, although seemingly tied to hospice, which is not the way most people think about having their own apartment, so that’s a whole separate question, but you want to stay here because it seems like this was your community and your home. Where do you want to be a year from now?
Dwinell: I am in the process of the possibility of a full-time job. I have some issues medically. So it’s really hard for me to stay on my feet for a long period of time, and until that’s taken care of…Actually a job has come through, that is a possibility for me starting next month. And it’s a selling job, full time, or above minimum wage. And so that’s my next step, and it has come through the grace of going with Gabe to a meeting with the city and so it’s still something that’s branched off from here. And I’m gonna take full time, I want that very badly. A car with payments would be alright, and a nice little car. I love my car. But you know, I wanna move up from what I already have now, that I’ve been blessed with. So just jump in a little bigger and a little better than what I already have.
Miller: Laura Dwinell, thanks very much for joining us.
Dwinell: Thank you.
Miller: Gabe, to go back to you. You have a bunch of questions on the online application form for the website for this place, things like where are you living now? Do you have a case manager? Do you have a pet? The last one really caught my eye. It’s this: what personal strengths do you bring to the community? What kinds of answers do people provide?
Piechowicz: Oh, man, that question, it’s so powerful because it speaks to one of the main thrusts of our community here, which is that we expect that everyone who’s here contributes in some form or fashion. And we always are excited to see what comes out of people once they stabilize, get some rest. But the answers that come through before people move in here can vary from all sorts of unexpected job skills: ‘I used to be a trade plumber and I would love to help if you’re doing plumbing.’ ‘I used to do construction.’ ‘I used to be an electrician or I’m really good with people’ and ‘I can help de-escalate really tough situations because I’ve been on the street a long time and people come to me for that,’ or ‘I actually know how to sew, so if you guys need help with sewing and clothing repair…’ Anything you can think of has come through on that question.
Miller: What made you want to put that question on the form? It seems different from all the others.
Piechowicz: It has a kind of a two-sided hope in it. So the first is that the first interaction a lot of people have with Everyone Village is that application online. And so in that question, we’re doing a little bit of a slight or subtle paradigm shift and I kind of explain it like this: when I meet someone who’s struggling with housing or anything, really, we always assess each other in these interactions when we meet people in life and scan each other.
And we’re doing that in that setting, and people are scanning me, and more often than not, I would assume they’re saying things in their head like, ‘This guy’s put together, he’s running a big show. He’s all over the community.’ We’re just different and I’m struggling with housing, and I may have drug and alcohol struggles as well. But I’m scanning as well, and I’m looking for a gift or a talent, and it doesn’t have to be big. And as soon as I can see that - it can be as simple as I can notice, hey, you tie your shoes really well, and our friend over here is struggling to tie their shoes - and so what I want to do in that space really quick, and the question gets there on the online edition, is I/we need your help. There’s something you have that will benefit and bless us.
So it creates this give-and-take right away. Even on the application, they would use a gift or talent I had? Whoa, that’s really awesome. And so instantly, it’s a helping give and take relationship.
Bryant: I would add that that’s just a natural part of the Village, right? And that’s the whole point, why we really rely on the villagers themselves to aid in this process, because of what they all bring to it and what they can offer to it. One of the privileges I have as a pastor is that I was able to do two weddings at Opportunity Village [for] couples that got together - in one case, they’d met before they got there. And it’s just a wonderful thing to see, of how people support one another, give each other rides to go to the doctor’s office, help someone fix something in their unit, and so forth.
Miller: We’ve got a comment from the audience. What’s your name?
Terri Kulick: My name is Terri Kulick. With that question, I’m on a committee which we have here at Everyone Village, we are voted in from other villagers. I am the chairperson of the committee. And so one of our responsibilities is to interview the people before they are accepted into the village. And with that question, I think that for me, I like to see just [the] want to be able to change, even if it’s just,’ we just want to be off the street.’ So, some people don’t even know what to put there because they’re not sure, but just to want to get themselves off the street.
We do a lot when they come in, we interview them, and Kevin’s also on the interview, we are all on the committee. So, for me - this is my second time around on the committee - I really enjoy being able to meet these people. And for me it’s the.. they want to change their life, you know? And so, they don’t always fit, sometimes they leave but for the most part they pretty much will stay.
Miller: Are there patterns you’ve seen? You said sometimes people don’t fit. What are the most common reasons for someone just not fitting in this community?
Kulick: I don’t think that there’s…
Dwinell: .. I can think of about one or two people that have come in who I guess, just living with rules, instead of that open life when they are struggling with addiction and things like that. You know, not that we don’t allow freedom, because we have an open-gate policy obviously. But, when it comes to addiction and things, a lot of people struggle with coming in every night and staying, rather than being out there with their people doing what it is they do while they’re struggling with addiction or alcoholism or anything else. And so, some people are just more comfortable with that outside life than they are to come in and do this, and try to function in a more stable environment.
It’s just a choice that some people make, that’s better for them, because it is work. It’s work to come in and start building your life again, and facing your addictions and your problems that you might have, compared to being out there and just going ahead and using and doing their thing that they do out there. So, I think it’s just the difference in where a person’s at in their life.
Kulick: And there’ve been a few applicants that we’ve had that have come in, we’ve interviewed and they’ve decided that this isn’t for them. And so, so be it, and we go on to the next person and that’s how that works with that.
Miller: Dan Bryant, to go back to you, I’m curious what it’s been like for you to be working directly on addressing homelessness over more than a dozen-year period, when regionally and nationally the problem has just gotten worse? Having nothing, obviously, to do with what you’re doing. But the thing you’ve dedicated your life to is becoming a bigger problem, not a smaller problem.
Bryant: Yeah, it’s been tough, precisely for that reason. I mean, if you look at the Lane County website, you can track the numbers, that in spite of all the good work that we’ve done, the numbers continue to rise. And what I’ve come to the conclusion, after doing all this work and particularly reading a lot of the data from various different folks, is that it’s really a function of housing cost and vacancy rates. And when you have high housing and low vacancy, there’s just a certain number of people that are gonna lose out, and it’s always the most vulnerable people that lose out. And like the story that Laura shared, anyone that has any kind of disabling condition - and that doesn’t necessarily mean an addiction, it can be a physical issue - it makes it very difficult for them to be able to support themselves. We just see so many people on the street who have some kind of disabling condition.
But it really is a function of housing costs and vacancy. And that means for us, as a community, that we have not done enough to provide affordable housing. We’ll hear a little bit later from Brittany in a meeting that we were just in two days ago, the data that was presented on the construction of affordable housing over the last 10 years, you saw in the first eight years of those 10 years, numbers of about 100 to 150 units per year, and only in the last two years, has it been upwards to 400. We need to actually be producing somewhere in the range of 1,000 units to 1,500 units a year in order to make up for the lack of housing that we have not been building over the last decade. And actually, my experience goes back to the early ‘90′s, of working on the FEMA Food and Shelter board, where we intentionally put all of our money into prevention of homelessness. And we did nothing to add to, build to the shelter capacity, and we were not doing anything to increase the numbers of affordable housing units that are actually being built. And so it’s been something that has accumulated over decades and now we’re trying to play catch up.
Miller: Paul Miller is with us here. He is a former resident of Opportunity Village, which as we heard earlier it’s what Dan Bryant co-founded and was the model for this village here. Paul, thanks for coming in.
Paul Miller: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Miller: So you spent, am I right, three years at Opportunity Village?
P. Miller: I think so. About three, three and a half years…
Miller: …before getting what I understand to be your own mobile home in Cresswell, about 20 minutes from here.
P. Miller: Correct.
Miller: What did Opportunity Village mean to you?
P. Miller: It was a huge turning point in my life. So, what got me to be in the homeless situation was years and years of drug abuse, which is not uncommon. We all come here with different reasons, different behaviors that get us here. And along with that, as others have shared, health issues and whatnot. So I came directly from the Eugene mission here. But I had been chronically homeless for a few decades on and off, from missions all over the place to couch surfing wherever I could.
When the opportunity to go to Opportunity Village arose, it took about a few months from the application process and then interviewing in.. that feeling that’s already been described, of getting a key in your hand…I had no keys for a long time. I didn’t have any keys, and like today, I’ve got just a handful of keys, but that first feeling of having a key…Dan spoke to the dignity that that provides, and I was already clean and sober at that time. So I’d gotten away from those behaviors and that pull, and that kind of draw to go back to that. I’d already dealt with that, so it was just another huge hand up to help me envision where I could land next.
Miller: What were some of the specific supports that you got? I mean, in addition to, as you described, the dignity of having your own place, were there also tangible other supports that you were provided that helped you eventually get your own place?
P. Miller: Absolutely. So when I left Opportunity Village, I went into a rental very close to Opportunity Village but totally independent, through a management agency, and was there for a couple of years before I ended up purchasing the place in Cresswell. And it would have been very difficult for me to afford the security deposit, first and last month’s rent, and then, even though I was already working full-time at the time, it wasn’t feasible. And I’d saved up a certain amount of money. And Square One Villages at Opportunity Village, their team helped me financially, to assist with that first move-in cost. And it’s stressful, I think, for any kind of major change like that, of a huge move like that, especially coming from an environment that in the Village, which was very positive for me, but that’s a huge change to go to a completely independent situation where I don’t have the community around me anymore.
Miller: Do you still miss that?
P. Miller: Oh, absolutely.
Miller: Oh, really?
P. Miller: Oh, sure. Absolutely. No, that was a huge piece of my being there that was just unforgettable. And it just does a lot for the heart, and it does a lot for me wanting to carry forward that sense of doing better and now, how can I help someone else? And I’m able to do that in my work as well. So I’m really, really blessed in that, you know?
Miller: What is your job, briefly?
P. Miller: I am a case manager, so I’ve been doing this for almost seven years, and I was still at Opportunity Village when I got that job. So, I’m able to show up in very casual clothes, and I have sideburns, and I wear my hair long, and it’s good because I can connect with people at any level, and most likely if you’re in a hard spot, I’ve been where you are.. most likely.
Miller: Paul, thanks very much.
P. Miller: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Dan Bryant, before we take a quick break, the sense I get is that there were some models - you mentioned Dignity Village, which probably some of our Portland area listeners may be familiar with as a model - but it also seems like you are sort of figuring this out as you’ve gone. Certainly, that’s what we heard from Pastor Gabe as well. What do you wish you’d known when you started 13 years ago?
Bryant: Wow. Yeah, there’s a lot, because we have been learning all along the way. I guess just knowing how to go about building community, and certainly in church work you learn a lot of that, but working with folks on the street, and just having more awareness and being aware of trauma informed kind of things, and the trauma that people on the street have experienced. And so just learning a lot of that from the experiences from people on the street. More importantly, though, that the solution ultimately is housing, and it took us a couple of years before we realized that, and have now devoted…and thankfully to good work that Gabe and others like him are doing, that feeling like we don’t have to do all of this work. We can now concentrate more on building affordable housing so that the wonderful folks here have some place to move into.
That took us a couple of years before we came to that conclusion and learning how to do that, that’s what’s been really the steep curve. Just learning how funding systems work, learning things about zoning and codes and all of that. Oddly enough, they didn’t prepare me for [that] in seminary, for some reason. And so, fortunately a lot of other good people have come alongside in our organization that have helped with that. And, it’s been mostly that – figuring out how to do housing, because that’s our greatest need - and to do that in a way that’s affordable. And it takes years to develop a housing project, unlike these projects that you can stand up fairly quickly. Although it seems like it takes a long time, doing housing just takes a whole lot longer, a lot more effort, a lot more people, a lot more money.
Miller: Dan Bryant, thanks very much for joining us. Dan Bryant is co-founder and executive director of Opportunity Village.
Brittany Quick-Warner is with us now, the president and CEO of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce. Thanks very much for joining us.
Brittany Quick-Warner: Thanks for having me.
Miller: My understanding is that you took over as CEO in 2017. What kinds of things were you hearing about homelessness from members of the business community back then?
Quick-Warner: Back in 2017, and the few years before that, our Chamber was really engaged specifically in the conversation about downtown revitalization and what we need to do to invest in our downtown core to be able to create a vibrant community for everyone. It’s kind of the living room of your community, right? And at that time, there were a lot of conversations about transient populations, folks on the street corners, concerns people had about homelessness, but then also crime and safety and those things sometimes intersect and sometimes don’t. So our Chamber was involved in and around those conversations. But to be honest, there never really was a formal outlet for the business community to get involved in the conversation around homelessness in our community.
Miller: Then came 2020 and COVID, what happened?
Quick-Warner: So, because of a lot of the state and federal regulations and a lot of our mostly congregate shelters had to reduce the number of individuals they could serve, the visible unhoused crisis really amplified in our community. And there were a lot of businesses who were reaching out to me, every single day, every conversation I had - didn’t matter what the impetus for the conversation was- it somehow turned back around to homelessness.
Miller: What kinds of things would people say?
Quick-Warner: It usually started with, ‘Hey, I have someone who has been camping on my doorstep.’ In our case, at the Chamber building in a stairwell that we have in the back. They have either ‘left and left a lot of belongings behind,’ or ‘they’re still there and we don’t really know what to do.’ ‘We want to take a humane approach, but we’re not even really sure what resources are out there to point them towards.’
Miller: And they would call you to say this?
Quick-Warner: Yeah, didn’t really know where to start, so they’d call the chamber and say, ‘Do you have any ideas? Can you help us understand?’ And then we’d get into the bigger conversation of, this crisis is really impacting our community in so many different ways, from our neighborhoods to our businesses, obviously, the unhoused individuals on the streets with the greatest impact, but folks were just sort of looking for resources at that point.
Miller: What options did you feel like you had? And we should say, obviously the chamber, it’s a coalition of business interests. So, what options did you feel like you had in terms of what you could actually do?
Quick-Warner: Frankly, we were kind of scraping things together. We were lucky that in our community a lot of our social service providers are chamber members. So we had relationships already. So we started picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing? How can we help connect people?’
But ultimately, I went to my board of directors and I said, ‘Look, the number one issue I’m hearing from our members, and we’re a membership organization, is that they want to know what the chamber is doing about this homeless crisis.’ And at that point, I didn’t have an answer for them. And this kind of ad-hoc resource connection role really didn’t feel like the most impactful way for us to be engaging. And so we challenged our board to really try to determine what is the role for the chamber in this conversation, and then kind of dove in after that.
Miller: Gabe, what do you remember from that time? Because I don’t think that - how do I put this - there have been times in recent years when there have just been very clear tensions between business owners all across Oregon in larger cities and in smaller ones. And Eugene, it’s certainly in Oregon on the larger end, tensions between business owners and social service providers, for example. Where would you put your relationship with people like Brittany, who you’re right next to right now, and business owners?
Piechowicz: Right in the middle. So, at the same exact time Brittany is sharing the story she just shared with you, my part in the community is moving in a new direction. We sold that church building. Dan helped us to get that family off the porch resettled, and we got a tiny little warehouse out here across the street from where we are right here this morning. And of course, trying to meet the new neighbors, started walking around west Eugene and noticed like, ‘Oh my gosh, there are RV’s everywhere.’
I dove in just to see what the heck was going on. So I started meeting the people that lived in the RV’s, meeting the business owners they parked in front of, and the city workers that were kind of stuck in the middle at that time trying to make sense out of it, and quick assessment was nobody knows what the heck to do next. And it was getting worse. And so we just grouped them together in family units of five or six RV’s on this street and then went and talked to the business owners proactively and said, ‘Hey, I think we can help, we can do this together.’ It’s not good for anybody, but we gotta make the best of it while we can. So the businesses were into that. So they would provide a porta-potty and a dumpster. I would provide general oversight. We’d get community agreements going, much like Dan spoke about earlier, just with RV groups on the street.
Then when the city had to move things along as a response to that, we would go ahead of the curve and I would get notified of a move and then I’d go find a new street and we talked to the business owners beforehand. ‘Hey, we’re coming, there’s no other way. Let’s work together,’ and we started getting a kind of an ecosystem going around it. And at about the same time, one afternoon, I was in our little warehouse trying to figure out why the heck I’m the RV-guy now. And Brittany knocked on the door and we started connecting over the business owners in West Eugene and how that was working and not working and how we might work together on it.
Miller: You know, you mentioned the city a little bit there. I imagine it’s Eugene police department who is sort of the tip of the city when we’re talking about, say, moving people along. But we’ve barely talked about government so far in this entire conversation, whether we’re talking about Lane County or City of Eugene or the state. Where are they in this conversation?
Piechowicz: That’s who we were talking about. So in that scenario, in that setting, it actually is a city, our local city. The city of Eugene did a really intelligent and forward thinking project at the time when we came out of COVID and things were escalating quickly. They created a unified command team. So they took city leaders from different departments within the city that are impacted or would touch the response to homelessness and created a single team. And when I started moving around West Eugene and working with Brittany and business owners to make some things better out here, they actually called and invited me to go to the unified command team meeting and to start helping to inform them on things that were happening in West Eugene around RV’s. Because at the same time, that unified command team was also trying to keep tenability on Washington/Jefferson Park and a large camp at 13th and then all the little ones around town. And so I kind of became their liaison for West Eugene.
Miller: OK. So it’s not like the city has been AWOL in this.
Piechowicz: No, not at all.
Quick-Warner: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things, whenever we did, as the Chamber, dive into this issue, really trying to take a third party perspective. I kind of felt like an investigative journalist for about six months. We sat down with over 200 folks, one-on-one - all the nonprofit service providers, businesses, city and county government, public safety officials, unhoused individuals themselves - and just said, ‘What’s working, what’s not working? Why has our system gotten to the place that it’s at? And if you had a magic wand, what would you do differently?’
What I realized through all of that, [and] what we realized, is that our city and county governments really have been responsible and really taking the burden of this along with our service providers for a long time. But the crisis has just escalated to the point where it is too big for them to handle it on their own. It is not for a lack of trying and putting in resources and trying to be creative and innovative, but they have boundaries with what they can do with certain dollars. There’s restrictions on federal and state dollars that come in that create this environment where they can’t be as nimble and flexible and creative as I think a community who is dealing with a crisis our size really needs us to be.
Miller: So, what is the business community doing right now?
Quick-Warner: So, we’re learning, that’s one of the biggest pieces, right? I believe very strongly that it’s really difficult to come into a conversation that’s been going on for a long time and insert yourself with a whole bunch of ideas if you don’t actually know the issue well enough. So you’re not just wasting everybody’s time with things that you’ve already tried, right? It’s not like there’s a whole lot of low hanging fruit anymore. We have picked all of that fruit. We are talking about very difficult solutions that need to be found together.
So we started with education. I thought a dozen folks would take me up on an invite to create this business leaders task force. We had over 100 businesses in the community reach out and say, ‘We wanna be a part of that. We wanna learn. We’ve been meeting for the last year together, just trying to dive into all the different complex components of this.’ And now folks understand it a lot deeper and they’re so much more open and creative to the solutions that I think we really need in this community. It’s gonna take more resources. We did an economic impact analysis this last six months in partnership with our government to really get a better idea of how much this issue costs our community. And frankly, we’re spending most of the money on this issue coming from one-time dollars and those dollars are going to come to an end at some point…
Miller: Still pandemic relief dollars?
Quick-Warner: Right, pandemic relief dollars. So over the last couple of years, we spent an average of $50 million in our community on homeless services. About $14 million of that was ongoing dollars. The rest were one-time funds that, in theory, have no more money coming down the pipe, right? So we have to, as a community, really grapple with some of these difficult challenges and we need the business community in that conversation, and at best out front sort of saying, ‘Look, this is what we support, this is how we need to move it forward.’ And it’s not just about funding, it’s about system improvements as well. But a lot of times those hard community conversations come to the business community after they’ve sort of been flushed out and people have a proposed solution and we just have to sit back and say yes or no. We want to be a part of developing that solution so then we can be the ones out advocating for whatever those changes are.
Miller: How worried are you about compassion fatigue? I mean, you mentioned that you thought a dozen business leaders would come to be part of a group, [but] 100 came. That shows a groundswell of interest, but clearly this is a problem that’s going to take ongoing time. I mean, if those business leaders don’t see near term turnarounds, how likely are they to stick around?
Quick-Warner: That’s one of, I think, the larger issues that we’re grappling with. So we’ve kind of helped bring together this cross- sector group of community leaders to really put some sort of plan in place to help address this on a long term in our community. And one of the biggest challenges that we face is that there is this sense of hopelessness in our community, and frankly across the state, that we can even attempt to solve this crisis, right? That it’s gotten to a place that we even still have a chance to overcome it. And so addressing that sense of hopelessness, I think takes a handful of things. It takes showing a plan that people believe could actually work and then finding some of those wins. How do we actually show that we’re making a difference in small ways to start to build up people’s confidence that we could actually solve this in the long term?
So we’re challenged with that and I think that just acknowledging it is the start for us and finding places like Everyone Village, like the work that Square One Village is doing, finding those wins and telling that story helps to build the hope we need to actually overcome it.
Miller: We’ve got another member of our audience here I wanna turn to now, Sam Jones. Welcome.
Sam Jones: Howdy. Thank you for having me.
Miller: Howdy to you. I understand that you were living in your 5th wheel trailer on property here before Gabe came along and started Everyone Village.
Jones: Yes, I was out back here and Gabe come along and invited me to be part of the Village.
Miller: Why did you want to stay, given how much this area was gonna change?
Jones: Well, not shortly after we got started, I had a massive heart attack and it was triple bypass surgery. And when I came back, it was a sense of community and the love everybody showed me when I got here that I want to, in turn, repay that to a lot of people and help them move this thing forward. It meant a lot to me. If it hadn’t been for this, I don’t know what I’d done, I’d have lost everything I own. But thanks to the folks here and Everyone Village that I am now a part of it, I can help them grow and do what I can. It’s a great community and a great thing for everybody.
Miller: So almost, or purely by chance, the place where you’ve been living, it turned into a community, and it happened around the same time that you actually needed help because of your heart issue?
Jones: Well, it was by chance, and they kind of inherited me along with the property, and I’ve been in this area in this building here for 30 years and my landlord passed away. His wife sold the building. In the process of moving out, I had a stroke. I got back here, and then I had a massive heart attack. So, yeah, it’s all by chance, and I think there’s a lot to look forward to. You know, I’m excited about seeing everything move on, giving folks around here that move in a place to decompress and start feeling more of a human again. They can leave their things. They don’t have to worry about somebody stealing it while they’re gone for 10 minutes. And everybody’s looking out for each other. It’s got great potential to expand and help a lot more people.
Miller: I’m thinking back to what we talked about earlier - that question on the website about ‘what strengths do you bring to the community,’ because the sense I’ve gotten from earlier conversations is that you do a lot of jobs here. It seems like you bring a lot of strengths this way. What do you do in any given week?
Jones: Whatever they happen to need – if it’s moving stuff around, help on building. You know, I’ve got a lot of skills I learned through my life. I’ll be almost 70 years old now, and if they need something done or you need somebody to talk to, or to move something, go get somebody, it’s just basically whatever they would like. And the more of my skills I can bring to the table to help out around here, and hopefully teach somebody else something that I’ve already learned.
Miller: Sam Jones, thanks very much. Gabe, you want to jump in?
Piechowicz: Yeah, one of the things that I would like to share that Sam brings to the village as a skill or gift that many bring here is, in this sort of reciprocal relational model we’ve tried to figure out here together, like I said, we expect to help each other. And I had a really horrible family tragedy about a half a year ago and the Village was there in a very powerful way for me and my kids, and there was a day, I’ll never forget where it was a rough day, wasn’t doing so good. And Sam saw me and he said, ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk,’ and we walked out into the field out back there and he said, ‘How you doing?’ I kind of told him, and he could see I was struggling and he gave me the biggest, most warmest bear hug you’d ever got in your whole life. And he whispered something in my ear. I’ll never forget. He said ‘Caught ‘ya.’
So Sam and everyone here brings something intangible as a gift. And that is what Sam just highlighted. And this is just a powerful example that we’re here for each other. We say, ‘everyone here is a Villager. So sorry about your luck, y’all, you’re all Villagers now.’ We’re all just Villagers in different ways. Some of us work here and that’s how we’re villagers. Some of us live here. Some of us are amazing community partners and that’s how we’re villagers. But in a village, we all just kind of… we hold each other up.
Miller: Maybe you just answered the question I’m gonna ask now, but I’ll ask it anyway, because we started by talking about the beginning of your ministry after you were a logger, and then you did this mid-career change, going to college and doing what you do now becoming a pastor. But how is this ministering? And what does it mean to you to say, ‘I am a pastor?’
Piechowicz: It’s less about religion or religious practice, and it’s more about for me personally just looking at the stories of this crazy guy who lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East named Jesus of Nazareth. He lived his life in such a way, whether you rise to him being the son of God or not, we know his historical path. He lived his life. And it just is full of these examples of taking care of each other, looking out for each other, servant leadership. And those are the things that I gather make up kind of a pastor in life. And don’t necessarily need a church building or a Sunday morning to do that kind of good life with other people. And so, for me, the most powerful expression of ministering is that both ways are setting up such a setting or a village or a place where, when I can, I help out in that kind of a way, and when I need it, that help comes right on back.
Miller: Gabe Piechowicz, Brittany Quick-Warner, thank you.
Brittany Quick Warner is the president and CEO of the Eugene area Chamber of Commerce. Gabe Piechowicz is the executive director of Everyone Village, where we are today, and pastor at Everyone Church.
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