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Oregon city aims to alleviate homelessness with a village of tiny houses

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Cities are using billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan to help people who do not have places to live. It's one of the biggest attempts to alleviate homelessness in decades. Katia Riddle reports on one initiative in Portland, Ore.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: There are at least 4,000 unhoused people in Portland, and polling consistently shows it's one of the biggest concerns for the public here. But the city's recent plan to build at least 300 more emergency shelter beds has not been met with tremendous enthusiasm.

CHARITI MONTEZ: What mostly we're hearing is, like, you really need to do something, but you need to do it over there - not in my neighborhood.

RIDDLE: Chariti Montez works on this program. She has received hundreds of letters of opposition to potential sites, like where she's standing on this day, in a mostly empty parking lot about eight miles east of the city center.

MONTEZ: The vision is - fully fenced, 24/7-managed shelter. I think folks think that we're talking about, like, tent encampments, and we're not.

RIDDLE: What the city's talking about is tiny houses - a village of 60 of them. This is not the first time Portland has tried stand-alone housing. Other cities have also used it. Results have been mixed. Experts say one thing that can help with success is fostering goodwill from nearby residents...

(SOUNDBITE OF PARK AMBIENCE)

RIDDLE: ...People like Meeha Voivad, who lives close by and is sitting at a picnic table in a park a few blocks from the proposed village site.

MEEHA VOIVAD: Yeah, I'm torn in between the thought of, like, having them around 'cause it doesn't make you feel safe, but also, they do need help to get off the street and get back on their feet.

RIDDLE: Voivad says he believes public policy can help unhoused people, but he's just not sure this is the solution.

VOIVAD: I'm not going to pretend to have a good answer.

SHEILA MASON: I don't know that, like, villages are the answer. But I think I'm going to be pro something over absolutely nothing.

RIDDLE: Sheila Mason learned a few years ago of a village coming to her neighborhood. At first, she was vehemently opposed to the project, but then she started going to community meetings.

MASON: I think I felt, first, a little bit ashamed. And so that was pretty humbling.

RIDDLE: The meetings helped her recognize her fear and misunderstanding of unhoused people.

MASON: And then I was like, OK, I have to own that and then start figuring out, like, how can I participate in solutions?

RIDDLE: Mason eventually helped design the village in her neighborhood. Engagement like this builds strong support for these projects. But given the rare and brief window to use this federal money, city officials are working at breakneck speed to stand up six of these villages while the money lasts. They say community engagement will have to come later.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Roll call, please.

RIDDLE: Another success factor? Community inside the villages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Otter. Your name?

RIDDLE: On the edge of town, a dozen people gather outside on a wet evening for a meeting at a place called Dignity Village. It's widely considered one of the most successful of these kinds of housing initiatives in Portland. It was started by some unhoused people about 20 years ago.

CHRIS DRAKE: Living here in the village, I loved it.

RIDDLE: Chris Drake moved in about six months ago. He's been living on the streets for most of his life. Drake says the secret to success at Dignity Village is that it's entirely self-managed.

DRAKE: Everybody takes care of everybody.

RIDDLE: People earn their stay through sweat equity and participation in the solution.

DRAKE: That is how we survive and still maintain humanity.

RIDDLE: Drake says this model gives people confidence and skills that help them graduate out of shelter into more stable housing. Drake recently moved out of the village and into an RV. City officials say while they've learned from Dignity Village, replicating it at scale isn't feasible. What they're making is emergency shelter. And given the thousands of people in crisis, the city needs as many beds as it can get.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.