Cities around the country have declared homelessness to be a ‘state of emergency’ and looking for creative solutions. Some of those cities are turning to self-organized micro-communities — think tent cities or tiny-house villages — as a partial solution.
Micro-communities have popped up in California, Washington, Wisconsin, upstate New York and other places. Oregon is at the forefront of this: Besides Dignity Village in Portland and Opportunity Village in Eugene, plans are underway to build new camps in Eugene and Veneta, and the Medford City Council is considering one as well.
Andrew Heben is a big supporter of this. The designer, activist and author told Dave Miller on Think Out Loud that so-called “tent city urbanism” isn’t just a way to deal with homelessness: He sees it as a path toward a more sustainable, fulfilling life.
Heben wrote his senior thesis in college on tent cities. For the research, he actually went to a few and lived in them. One, called Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, left a particular imprint on Heben.
“I don’t want to romanticize the issue; it’s certainly not an ideal scenario,” Heben said. “But … it seemed like a more human approach to the issue than traditional shelter models.”
The camp had weekly democratic meetings where each person had a voice in making decisions on how the camp was run, and there were rules prohibiting stealing and drug use and violence.
Heben used this and other research to write “Tent City Urbanism,” a book that is both an exploration of the tent city movement and a guide on how to start a tiny house village. The book takes the minimalist trend of tiny houses — structures usually less than 300 square feet — and applies it to the homelessness problem.
“It’s a bit shortsighted to expect people that are literally breaking the law by existing in space to respect their environment,” Heben said, “but if you give people a legal place to exist, stability, privacy and autonomy, then you’ll find much better results.”
Heben went a step further in his personal life: He moved to Eugene and helped found Eugene’s first micro-community, Opportunity Village. Opportunity Village is operated very economically, using only $5 per person per night.
But Heben’s method has critics, even among Think Out Loud’s listeners.
“The homeless have shown themselves to not be successful in their lives, and we are expecting them to be so competent to be able to create a self-sustaining ‘city’?” Steve Scarich asked on Think Out Loud’s Facebook page. “Tough ask for [a] highly skilled, successful person, much less someone who has shown they cannot ‘compete’ under normal circumstances.”
Heben says people living without homes have too much at stake to fail.
“There is a sense of ownership, especially when you have nowhere else to go,” Heben said. “These people find stability and they want to protect that.”