A leafy street in St. Johns is about to get 19 new neighbors.
A coalition of local officials, faith and nonprofit leaders are racing to meet a planned January opening of Portland's newest outdoor transitional shelter — St. Johns Village — before the worst of winter's chill arrives.
"Being houseless is difficult. Nobody is really excited to live in a tent on the street," said Chris Aiosa, executive director of Do Good Multnomah, the agency that will manage the site. "This is an opportunity for folks to have their own place, to have a door that locks."
The St. Johnâ€™s Village is fast becoming reality!— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) December 17, 2020
19 houseless people will be able to live in these sleeping pods. They are being moved in by crane in North Portland today
The outdoor shelter will be fully operational by January pic.twitter.com/zWHiiDU3kX
After four years of planning, it required just a few hours' work on Thursday, Dec. 17, for a crane to hoist the 8-by-12-foot sleeping pods off flatbed trucks and onto the muddy soil across the street from the St. Johns Church at 8005 N. Richmond Ave. in North Portland.
The single-occupancy pods are identical, except for the muted tone of the paint, and come equipped with a bed, storage, windows, electric heaters and lighting. Two more permanent buildings with poured foundations and plumbing on the north end of the lot will host showers, bathrooms, a communal kitchen, laundry facilities, meeting space and a manager's office. A wooden privacy fence will be constructed, and garbage pick-up will be scheduled regularly.
Residents will be allowed to stay for up to two years, though three on-site staffers will seek to ease villagers into more permanent housing in a shorter span, hopefully about six to eight months, said Pastor David Libby.
The spiritual leader for the St. Johns Church said the nearly half-acre lot had sat empty, used as little more than a "glorified dog park," despite being owned by the church for years. His congregants have backed the project for two years now — and seeing it come to fruition was emotional.
"I almost started crying this morning. It's incredible," Libby said. "We've had so much support from neighbors. But we've also had some tough conversations, some spirited conversations with neighbors."
It's also a local effort. The pods and community structures were constructed inside a nearby warehouse under the direction of Mods PDX founder Nathan D. Young. Villagers will be selected from the streets of North Portland, with some residents coming from Hazelnut Grove, another sanctioned outdoor shelter that lacks infrastructure or a service provider partnership.
St. Johns firm Convergance Architecture donated plans for the layout of the camp, said principal architect Joseph Purkey. The pods are as compliant as possible with Americans With Disability Act standards, and the outdoor walkways connecting the pods will be elevated to eliminate the need for stairs.
"One of my big pushes at this site was to eliminate access barriers," Purkey said.
Members of the philanthropic arm for the Home Builders Association volunteered to complete the painting, finish work on the inside and donated about $30,000 to the project for buying mattresses and other supplies, according to Brenda Ketah, executive director of the Home Builders Foundation.
Do Good Multnomah has signed a five-year lease paying $3,400 a month to the church, with the money coming from the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services. Costs for site preparation and utility connections has been pegged at $500,000, with another $850,000 to be spent on the pods and community buildings.
"The city has been handling the site prep, and the Joint Office has been passing through CARES Act and other funding to Do Good toward the pods and community space," said spokesman Denis Theriault. "The pandemic and the use of CARES dollars put the construction process on a pretty urgent timeline — both the fundamental need for shelter space, and also the requirement to spend most CARES dollars by Dec. 30."
Pastor Libby said drug use will not be allowed inside the camp. Aiosa said the aim is to create a low barrier to housing, though background checks will be required for sexual offenses due to a nearby school.
Do Good Multnomah is relying on its experience running the Clackamas Veterans Village and a more traditional shelter inside the Charles Jordan Community Center to make the new village a success.
"They all have barriers, They're all working on something. Whether it's mental health, physical health, criminal, financial — it doesn't really matter," said Aiosa of their guests. "This gives them an opportunity to get in somewhere warm, safe and stable where they can work with our staff."
Follow me on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.