Lessons from Transitional Villages in Oregon and Washington
Scott Wagner spent 4 days in July, 2018, touring Dignity Village in Portland, and eight villages in the King County, Washington area that house about 500 people. The villages represent a broad spectrum of approaches to building and leveraging the power of community to create and maintain stability. All utilized either complete or a high degree of self-management.
- Self-management works well if it is supported by strong, proven protocols, volunteers, and training. Most villages are led by a “Triad”, three rotating volunteers who typically manage security, outside interactions, and operations. Management is protective of and fiercely loyal to their villages; they are motivated by a deep appreciation of the value of community to clients. Villages have one or two paid staff, typically only one fulltime “case manager” targeting preparations and coordination of housing placement.
- All villages maintain a 24 hour security watch, a single entry point, stopping and logging of all visitors, and a ‘ban list’, which helps enormously with safety issues. The security shack provides a consistent locus of community life and coordination. The constant presence of a watch helps maintain a culture of zero tolerance of violence and thievery.
- Neighbors have a generally positive view of established villages. Mandated litter patrols, involvement in local affairs, and a tendency for villagers to work or be home (like most people) means a low and positive profile locally. Crime has decreased in most areas since village creation.
- 7 of the 9 villages visited were completely composed of insulated sheds, mostly of one design, costing about $2500 in materials. Most are funded through donation; all were constructed by volunteers and clients. All but the family units are designed to be moved by pallet jack; most arrived on a truck. They have very inexpensive built-in oil heating and electricity for lighting and charging, with solar power being implemented in stages. For some villages, infrastructure investment upfront was significant. All villages have centralized bathroom, kitchens, and a community areas. Most have overflow group tents for the winter to take in more of the unhoused during the night.
- Villages are often successfully shut down or moved. Several shed villages have moved recently, with other moves planned. The oldest tent village in America (Tent Village 3, 18 years old) purposefully moves about every three months, typically adjusting the number and mix of their population each time. They do this to share the burden among sponsor organizations, to provide a wide variety of neighborhoods a positive experience of the unhoused (including litter removal in the broad area), and to keep the tent community used to the notion of minimal impact.
- Villages are designed for different locales and emphasis, with loose focus on the aged, local people, the newly homeless, substance users, the disabled, etc. Stability and planning are enhanced when somewhat specific populations are grouped together. Villagers’ success in permanent housing placement varies in intuitive ways, depending on the population, the location, the availability of case management, and local housing funding.
- Villages mandate about 10 hours a week in chores by all clients, and regular attendance at village meetings. Drugs and alcohol are not allowed, except in one “low barrier” village; abuse is managed by managing behavior. Most villages have problems that crop up due to drug use, but they do not dominate village life or ruin the culture they’ve developed.
- Villages generally cost about $300 per month per client, or $10 a day, with funding provided by a varied combination of government, grants, donation, and client rents. Costs are about 25% sewer/water/garbage, 40% staff and contract services, with the rest miscellaneous insurance, supplies, and vouchers. Tent City 3 (~100) and Dignity Village (~60) are self-funded through donations; the rest receive government support.
- Overwhelmingly, clients prefer village life over shelter life. Client satisfaction matters greatly when trying to achieve stability and prepare for permanent housing. Because clients are in the coordinated entry system and trying to obtain permanent housing, no time limits are employed. Residents are provided equivalent access to services and permanent shelter as shelter residents, but at much less initial and ongoing cost to government, and at much higher levels of satisfaction.