Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Conestoga Hut

The Conestoga hut is capturing the heart of Eugene!  Lately I’ve been spending quite a bit of time over at the Tine Hive where we’ve been building a prototype, setting up a space to intake material donations, and getting ready to organize work sessions where volunteers will collaborate to build dozens of these little huts.  This is the beginnings of a larger effort that we are calling Community Supported Shelters.
This 6 by 10 foot shelter can be built for around $300-$600 depending on the utilization of re-used or donated materials.  While this is a similar price to a quality tent, the Conestoga makes significant improvements upon the tent – most notably a highly insulated and lockable space – while minimizing the cost, skill and labor required by a more conventional, four-walled structure. 
There are four components to a Conestoga hut: a basic 6 by 10 foot insulated floor, two solid, insulated walls in the front and back, and a metal wire roof that is curved to connect to the long sides of the floor.  The roofing frame is then covered with insulation and outdoor vinyl that is attached to the base of the structure. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Opportunity Village Concept Plan

The non-profit Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE) proposes a pilot project for a transitional village of around 30 adults on suitable land controlled by the city that has access to public utilities, public transportation (within ¼ mile), borders that can be controlled, and is at least one acre in size. OVE will construct simple “micro houses” which are secure, lockable and insulated using a standardized building guide.  The Village will be self-governed with oversight provided by the Board of Directors. Basic, non-negotiable rules are:
  • No violence to yourselves or others
  • No theft
  • No alcohol, illegal drugs, or drug paraphernalia
  • No repetitive, disruptive behavior
  • Everyone must contribute to the operation and maintenance of the Village.
To the extent possible, residents will be involved in the building process so that they may earn “sweat equity” toward the value of their shelter. We have partnered with architects and builders who have volunteered to assist in the construction of the village and to hold hands-on workshops constructing simple, compact, and inexpensive structures. Along with individual homes, the village will include a kitchen and dining area, bathrooms with showers, a gathering space for meetings, and opportunities for gardens and micro-businesses.  This is described in more detail on the following pages.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

From Camp to Village

Published in Fall issue of Communities magazine
By: Andrew Heben

There is tremendous opportunity for sustainable practices within the tent cities organized by our unhoused populations here in the US. Instead of considering ways to improve living conditions within these marginalized communities, attention is directed towards rescuing people from their situation. This approach leaves people in an expected state of urgency and desperation to find conventional shelter, yet our stock of affordable and transitional housing continues to dwindle, and what does remain is often socially isolating and environmentally unsustainable.  Rather than being rescued, members of tent cities are more often left to carry out a nomadic existence, forced by city officials to move from one space of underutilized land to the next.

A better approach may be to consider ecovillages as a model for reframing these informal settlements as a viable alternative. Let’s address homelessness and sustainability together.

Ecovillages typically have personal, social, and ecological dimensions. Many tent cities already demonstrate strong personal and social elements—especially organized ones in which a self-governing community begins to emerge. They often ban theft, alcohol, and illegal substances in order to improve living conditions within the community and lessen the likelihood of eviction by the city.

Organized tent cities practice horizontal organization where people facing similar issues work together in order to help themselves. This opportunity for participation results in what Caleb Poirier describes as “a returned sense of agency,” where people who became accustomed to being unheard all of a sudden make decisions that directly shape the community in which they live.

Mutual Support at Camp Take Notice

Caleb is the founder of Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor. What started over three years ago as a single tent in the woods, evolved into a highly organized community of around 60 otherwise homeless individuals. After a series of relocations, the camp settled in its sixth location where it developed organically for over two years in left over space created by highways.  In late June, residents returned to find state workers constructing an eight-foot fence that would prevent them from returning to their long-time home. “It's not against Camp Take Notice specifically,” said Mark Sweeney, a regional manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation, “but more to prevent a homeless encampment of any kind in this location."  While some received subsidies for one year’s rent over half did not.  This insufficient, short-term solution could cost the state over half a million dollars.

During the summer of 2010, I stayed at Camp Take Notice to collect some first-hand research for my urban planning thesis project on tent cities. Instead of acting as an outside observer I decided I would much rather be a participant in this alternative community. Among other things, I found a prevalent gift, barter, and sharing economy in which goods and services were regularly traded without monetary exchange.

A fine example of this came during my lowest moment while staying at the camp. As usual, I started the day by winding my bike up the forested trail, over the guardrail, and began to ride on the bridge over the highway. A large truck approaching from behind caused me to swerve and scrape the curb. Looking down, I saw the piece that holds the chain in place had cracked in half. With only a few dollars I realized I would probably not be able to get it fixed during the rest of my time there.

For most this would not be a huge deal, but a bike is an extremely valuable possession in this situation. Being able to get downtown each day is imperative for campers to get food, showers, and other services. I chained my bike to the nearest road sign and got on a bus since I had a meeting with the camp’s nonprofit organization that afternoon.

After the meeting I walked the three miles back to camp to save bus fare, picking up my dejected bike along the way. As I entered camp, someone asked how my day was. I explained what had happened. As we examined the bike near the community's gathering area others joined us, including Dave who identified the broken piece as a rear derailleur. He said he had worked fixing bikes for years.

Usually reserved around me, Dave became quite engaged with the chance to help with a problem he was knowledgeable about. A number of old bikes were lying around so he suggested we replace my derailleur with one from an unused bike - a task for which we needed a special tool. We sought out Ethan, a military veteran with a wide selection of tools. Ethan sifted through a large case to find the right fit. I was able to easily remove the broken piece, and then start to replace it with a derailleur from an unused bike. But none of them fit my bike properly. I was still out of luck.

The next day I met with Caleb who, upon hearing my problem, helped me get a “Fare Deal” card which reduced my bus fare to $0.75. Panhandling a few quarters from time to time or recycling a few bottles was not a problem. Although my bike was still busted, I felt better about the situation knowing there was a network of friends to help when needed.

It also reaffirmed my belief in the personal and social dynamics of organized tent cities.
Individuals facing similar issues work together in community, while simultaneously creating opportunities for personal healing and growth. The person with the problem becomes part of the solution.

Where Ecovillages Fit In

A key difference in this comparison is that ecovillages are villages of choice, while organized tent cities, though autonomous in nature, are camps of necessity. Also, outside of an often unintentionally small footprint, tent cities lack the ecological dimension fundamental to ecovillages. It takes a highly motivated community to take on such responsibility, and many people believe homeless folks could never do it.

Portland’s Dignity Village disproves this. Formerly known as Camp Dignity, the group was relocated dozens of times throughout the city, but continued to demand a “third alternative” to the street or shelter. Their relentless determination earned them a stable piece of city-owned land on which the settlement has existed for over a decade, slowly evolving from a camp to a village.  Mark Lakeman, an architect who helped facilitate the vision for the village, describes the transition:

“[Camp Dignity] started off as tents but immediately they were self-organized into clusters. It was a nomadic form of a village at the start. As the camp was about to transition into more permanent settlement patterns, we realized the last 10,000 years were going to play out in a decade. They were going to be able to go from nomadic hunters and gatherers in a way—since they were subsisting off of what they could find—to settling and then establishing a system of pathways, nodes, and places; creating an urban fabric that actually reflected the people who lived there.”

This vibrantly painted village of self-constructed homes and gardens sets a precedent for how organized tent cities can transform spaces into places. However, Dignity Village had a few special individuals committed to building an ecologically-minded community, which is not always the case for tent cities. I believe this lack of motivation is not due to disinterest or incapability, but rather pressure to move on to more conventional shelter.

So, rather than focus on rescuing people from tent cities, an intentional community, such as an ecovillage, could adopt these unintentional communities, thereby broadening the reach of the current ecovillage movement. We can expand sustainable communities by including those residing in tents, the most basic of shelter!

At the simplest level, ecovillages could provide political support to a local tent city as a viable alternative to conventional housing. A network of support in the larger community is a key first step. Next, campers could become involved at the ecovillage, learning practical skills to apply in their own community. Ecovillagers could hold workshops at tent camps, providing hands-on education and catalyzing the transition from camp to village. While ecovillages expand their cause, organized tent cities could learn how to build and heat small, eco-minded dwellings.

Eugene, Oregon may soon break ground on such a model. Following the dismantling of the Occupy Eugene encampment late in 2011, the city formed a task force to find “new and innovative” solutions to the city’s homeless problem. Their recommendation: “a place to be.” At an Open Space conference at the end of March, supporters of this initiative connected with members of Maitreya Ecovillage, sparking the idea of a partnership between the two. One member is excited about building tiny houses for the village, while another is interested in presenting a model for more primitive structures that would be useful in the early phase. Yet another has offered to lend his knowledge of simple food production methods. We are working now to convince the City Council.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Camp Take Notice: Evicted

After nearly three years at the site off Wagner Road, the organized tent city known as Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor was evicted by Michigan Department of Transportation.

The article fails to mention they'd been there for nearly three years, had long standing relationships with MDOT, city officials, and the police to try to work out a legal option, and that the subsidies cover less than half of the people that were staying there.  The subsidies, which will house around 30 people for one year, are very short-term solutions that will cost around half a million dollars.  The fence being constructed will cost nearly $20,000 and offers no solutions other than keeping people out of unused space.

Read the full story on the history of Camp Take Notice.

What is next for the Camp Take Notice experiment?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Introducing Opportunity Village

Lately I have been applying the comprehensive research found on this page to a local project in my current city of Eugene, Oregon.  The project has evolved out of the Occupy camp that drew significant attention to the city's unhoused population.  After the camp was shut down the city formed a task force to find "new and innovative" ways to deal with the issue.  Since then a team has been meeting regularly to develop a vision for what we are calling Opportunity Village.  The project aims to learn from the best practices of various organized tent cities in order to create the most progressive model in the country.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Seattle's Nickelsville

I recently visited "Nickelsville" while in Seattle and received quite a warm welcome.   This organized tent city is completely self run.  The camp has relocated to around a dozen sites only to return to its original location where the group has finally found some stability.  While it is not formally recognized by the city, Mayor McGinn has said he will not seek eviction of this refuge in the middle of the city's industrial district.

An existing resident helps a newcomer secure dry shelter (center) while another resident completes a security check.  All are expected to attend weekly meetings and a certain number of credits are required where each resident contributes back to the village.
Residents improve conditions of living in a tent by using two layers of pallet boards to lift it off the ground and covering it with an outer tarp shell.
Child playing amongst the tents. 
And pet cats too!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Follow Up on Pinellas Hope

I recently received an e-mail that confirmed my skepticism in a previous post about my visit to Pinellas Hope.  The story highlights the dangers of institutionalizing tent cities, where horizontal organization is replaced with top-down style management.

"The City of St. Petersburg decided that the homeless were to be treated like the plague, in that they urinated in public, bothered people by panhandling, and blocked access to "legitimate" business concerns. The homeless had loosely organized a city of tents under a highway overpass with the blessing of the landowners, the St. Vincent DePaul Society. So rather than address the problem, the city decided to get rid of them by slashing their tents to the ground. This was big news around here, as the action was so brutal. The government excuse was that they were cooking in their tents, which created a fire hazard. So one morning, the Police Dept. came by with box cutters and slashed the tents at the base, leaving only the floor behind, with their possessions exposed. What was not stolen was thrown in the trash by lunchtime by city sanitation workers. Many of the residents were also minimum wage workers, and at their jobs that day...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Vallejo, CA Tent City Urbanism Presentation

An article in the Times-Herald covering the presentation last Thursday on sanctioned tent camps:

Vallejo resident David Cruz said his love for his dog prevents him from resolving his homelessness.

Cruz was among more than two dozen "housed" and "unhoused" residents who gathered Thursday night to hear a presentation on a concept called sanctioned tented camps, or villages.

It's an idea that Councilwoman Marti Brown said she thinks may be a more humane approach to Vallejo's persistent homelessness problem than what's currently being done.

Oregon urban planner Andrew Heben described his research into the phenomenon of tent cities in the United States. He said several cities, mostly along the West Coast, have elected to allow some homeless people to create permanent camps on otherwise underused land.

These often develop into organized communities, that can be made sustainable and provide a measure of dignity to its residents as they seek to stabilize their lives, Heben said.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Ann Arbor's Camp Take Notice featured by the BBC:
"Panorama's Hilary Andersson comes face to face with the reality of poverty in America and finds that, for some, the last resort has become life in a tented encampment.
Just off the side of a motorway on the fringes of the picturesque town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a mismatched collection of 30 tents tucked in the woods has become home - home to those who are either unemployed, or whose wages are so low that they can no longer afford to pay rent.
Conditions are unhygienic. There are no toilets and electricity is only available in the one communal tent where the campers huddle around a wood stove for warmth in the heart of winter.
Ice weighs down the roofs of tents, and rain regularly drips onto the sleeping campers' faces.
Tent cities have sprung up in and around at least 55 American cities - they represent the bleak reality of America's poverty crisis.