Portland nonprofit: Tiny homes, big ambitions
Something's being done about homelessness in the age of the coronavirus behind the painted boards set up on a playing field along Southwest Capitol Highway.
That's where a small-but-growing construction business called Cascadia Clusters has been training homeless people in the building skills needed to construct affordable housing. In other words, helping people who help themselves.
Cascadia Clusters is what's legally known as an Oregon Public Benefit Corporation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. It receives no government funding, operating strictly on donated funds and the revenue from residential and commercial construction work done by its crews.
"Our revenue stream is pretty strong right now so we're going to take advantage of that," said founder Andy Olshin, a self-described "recovering lawyer" who left the legal side of the construction industry during the Great Recession of 2008. "We're trying to support houseless villages and part of what we do is pay our trainees who live in the villages so they can contribute more to the economy of the village than most of the people there."
He's so confident of the coming demand that in early April he invested in six of the $3,500 trailers built specifically to transport tiny houses at Iron Eagle Trailers in Fairview, Oregon. "I've been waiting for an opportunity to put cash in. Here it is," Olshin said.
Tiny houses and "support pods" built by Cascadia Clusters are providing shelter and basic necessities at Agape Village in Southeast Portland and Hazelnut Grove in North Portland.
"We're building very, very low-income housing and not just for the homeless," Olshin said.
By definition, tiny houses are smaller than 400 square feet. Cascadia's tiny houses are closer to 200 square feet with room for a minimal kitchen, composting toilet and sleeping loft. By comparison, the average Portland apartment is about 760 square feet and the average new home is about 2,000 square feet. It's been estimated that 1% of home buyers in America will opt for less than 1,000 square feet.
Each tiny house is built from recycled material and operates on solar or battery power, using less than 10% of the energy a standard house uses. When the cost of the trailer it rides on is included, tiny houses cost about $20,000 to build.
In late September, Olshin and co-executive director Toma Solano moved their operation from the parking lot at the Congregation Neveh Shalom synagogue, just off Southwest Dosch Road, to land next to the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. Little did they know that by the middle of March the demand for what they're building would surge.
"There's a three-month moratorium on evictions, right? Is there any possibility of those people affected becoming homeless after that moratorium is over?" Solano answered his own question. "I'd say that's very likely."
Solano predicted the approval of more homeless villages in which tiny houses and shower and kitchen pods would be the vital infrastructure of shelter.
"The amount of things we're building now and potential avenues for the products we're making has expanded," he said.
Because of that, Cascadia Clusters has cleared more land for construction, started recruiting more workers from the ranks of the homeless, established new community partnerships and invested in those locally built trailers to haul the tiny houses.
Because there's growing demand for kitchen, shower and laundry facilities that support communities of tiny houses, "We are growing organically. Maybe a little bit faster than I originally planned because of this shift that has been going on. We're pivoting," Olshin said.
As social service agencies in Portland ramp up to meet the demand brought on by the coronavirus crisis, Cascadia Clusters structures have caught the attention of Harbor of Hope, which built the River District Navigation Center homeless facility and dispatches portable showers to where they're needed. An organization called Stone Soup, which trains the homeless for jobs in the food service industry, is interested in the kitchen facilities being built in a converted semi-trailer at the one acre job site next to Mittleman.
Bob Brimmer has been working for Cascadia for nearly a year. He lives in a tiny house he helped build at Hazelnut Grove, where he currently is president of the tenants board.
Things didn't work out for Brimmer the way he thought they would when he moved to Oregon five years ago at the age of 20. "I just fell into the standard routine of 'Life sucks. Let's get drunk,'" he told Pamplin Media Group last August.
He ended up getting involved in homeless activism, going to candlelight vigils and protests and sleeping in front of City Hall.
"Then that turned into Hazelnut Grove and now I'm out here working. I've got a job, right? A job and a stable place to sleep. The sky's kind of the limit at this point," he said during a cigarette break.
Brimmer and the other homeless trainees make $18 an hour.
"People need to understand that 25% of the people who are currently homeless are working. They're trying to pull themselves up. What we're doing is not to be confused with charity. It's broader and deeper than that," Olshin said.
So the Cascadia Clusters enterprise of Southwest Portland is not about tiny houses as much as it is about the people who are being trained to build them.
"We really try to do our best to work with the people who are doing the labor to try to understand where they're coming from and try to meet their needs as our first priority," Olshin said.
He relates that mission to a Hebrew concept called "tzedakah," which establishes a hierarchy of charitable actions. The "least meritorious" charity is when one donates begrudgingly. The highest form allows the person on the receiving end to become self-reliant.
"It's about giving help to someone who's helping themselves. It's about really seeing the other who is trying to climb out to a better life," he added.
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