Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Blog Action Day 2013

Volunteers assembling dwellings for Opportunity Village Eugene (photo from OVE's Facebook site)
Blog Action Day is an annual event that unites the world's bloggers in posting about an issue of global importance on the same day (Monday, October 15). It’s an opportunity to witness the power of participatory journalism marshaled toward a common cause. The aim is to raise awareness and trigger a worldwide discussion. 

This is my fifth Blog Action Day:  For 2012 the theme was “The Power of We.” In 2011 the issue was Food; in 2010 it was Water; in 2009 it was Climate Change. 

The theme this year is Human Rights. As an architect, someone who likes to think of himself as dedicated to the betterment of our built environment for the benefit of all, I must admit a measure of discomfiture about what architects should be doing to help address the variety of human rights issues confronting our population. Certainly, one pressing issue is homelessness. 

Most everyone considers the right to shelter as fundamental, regardless of whether individuals have the wherewithal to provide for themselves or not. Humans cannot survive for long without protection from the elements. It’s incumbent upon a civilized society to care for those among its numbers who, through misfortune rather than choice, are without a place to lay their heads each night. 

This past April, the Southwestern Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects turned the light upon homelessness, a social problem that has resisted simple solutions for decades in America. Specifically, a panel of speakers described the valiant local effort to create Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE), a new transitional village for homeless individuals and couples in west Eugene. 

Architects know how profoundly a living or work environment can shape the imaginations of the people inside them. “We shape buildings and then buildings shape us.” But what about those who are doing without? When people lack the security, the predictability, the comfort, and the definition of a place to call their own, what are we asking them to live without? 

Dan Bryant, pastor at First Christian Church and OVE board president, outlined the breadth of the challenge here in Eugene. A staggering 1,400 people may go without shelter on any given night. Caregivers like the Eugene Mission and Shelter Care have no choice but to turn away as many as 95% of those looking for a roof over their heads. The common stereotypes about the homeless—that they are predominantly drug addicts, winos, criminals, lazy, or mentally ill—are giving way to an understanding about how diverse their population really is. 

The homeless are often well-educated. Many are caring parents with children. Others are victims of domestic abuse, or burdened with physical disabilities, or unemployable for reasons beyond their control. The vast majority have roots in our community. Most are not transients; they are our neighbors. The reasons for homelessness are as different as each person is. 

Dan explained how Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy charged the Opportunity Eugene Task Force with recommending new and innovative solutions to the issue of homelessness in Eugene. The group concluded establishing a safe and secure place for those currently without housing should be the first priority. Acting upon this recommendation, the City of Eugene approved OVE as a pilot project through October 1, 2014. 

After examining potential sites for several months, the City Council picked a vacant lot at 111 North Garfield Street near Roose­velt Boulevard as the future site for OVE. It was one five sites the council considered. The lot used to be a trailer park, so there are utilities on hand that can be repurposed. The immediate neighborhood doesn’t have a lot of residences, so the likelihood of resistance to establishing a transitional homeless community there is minimized. 

On the opposite side of the ledger, the lot is not conveniently located near basic services, such as a grocery store. However, in this regard it is nowhere as poorly sited as Dignity Village in Portland, which is located near the Portland International Airport, many miles away from everything. Perhaps the North Garfield site’s biggest shortcoming is that the City of Eugene bought the property eight years ago with the intention of using it to construct a 40,000-square-foot maintenance garage for city vehicles. Ultimately, OVE’s days are numbered because the City will one day construct its garage. 

Opportunity Village Eugene welcomed its first residents last month. What does it look like and how does it work? It’s a transitional village of around 30 people who have collaborated with skilled architects and builders to construct simple, efficient micro-houses and shared common spaces. OVE provides its residents with opportunities to build a human-scaled community while developing skills and relationships that allow them to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle. OVE’s foundation rests upon the notion that self-governance will provide residents with autonomy, responsibility, and respect. 

The building blocks of the village are compact, simple, safe, secure, and transportable dwelling structures, clustered together to encourage community cohesion and security. Panelists Alex Daniell and Andrew Heben described the various types of structures, which include Conestoga huts, deluxe and budget bungalows, roundhouses, and conic shells. The dwellings, none larger than about 100 square feet, provide basic shelter only. Kitchen and food storage, a dining area, bathrooms, bike parking, and personal storage lockers are communal. 

OVE also provides a gathering space for meetings, and opportunities for gardens and micro-businesses. Overall, the village offers a stable, safe, and sanitary environment where basic needs— food, shelter, medical care, a sense of dignity and belonging in place and community— are met. 

Mark Hubble, himself a homeless member of our community, discussed how meaningful it is to him to have an alternative to being on the streets. For Mark, simply having a lockable front door is huge. He was the first person to move into a Conestoga hut as part of Eugene’s car camping program, which allows huts to be placed on sites around the city hosted by local churches or businesses. He believes Opportunity Village Eugene provides the stability and a foundation people without houses need, as well as a sense of purpose, place, and belonging. 

Mark detailed how the ongoing success of OVE is predicated upon several core values. These include a village committed to horizontal organization and self-governance. They require resident participation to the greatest extent possible in the assembly of the structures. Additionally, the core values dictate an application and intake process based upon relationship building, and adherence to five basic, non-negotiable rules listed in the Community Agreement. 

The five rules for the Village are:

1. No violence to yourselves or others

2. No theft

3. No alcohol, illegal drugs, or drug paraphernalia

4. No constant, disruptive behavior

5. Everyone must contribute to the operation and maintenance of the Village.

Residents self-manage the village with oversight provided by the non-profit, Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE). Residents make decisions about how the village is managed and directly deal with minor disputes. The non-profit ensures that the five basic rules are being upheld. OVE also screens all potential residents and conducts criminal background checks. 

All of the panelists who spoke to local architects as panelists at our meeting last April enriched our understanding of the struggles that accompany homelessness, and provided us with a little inspiration that can shape the work we do for clients who are much more fortunate. It’s all too easy for us to overlook how architects contribute powerfully to a larger, invisible structure that builds equity and compassion into our society. 

So what can we do to help? For one, we can volunteer our time and skills. We can also contribute construction materials to OVE’s building partner, Community Supported Shelters. CSS receives donations at the Tine Hive located at 1160 Grant Street in Eugene. And of course, OVE would welcome any monetary assistance. OVE is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, so all contributions are tax-deductible.

If Opportunity Village Eugene is viewed by the broader community as a success, the nonprofit hopes it will eventually see a network of several villages throughout the city. Everyone benefits when those who are homeless are offered the opportunity afforded by needed shelter to renew their life goals and aspirations. 


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