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Cascadia Clusters combines hope with hard work at Mittelman Jewish Community Center job site

Tiny houses are not a trend and the homeless problem isn't going away.

In fact, evidence of these two truths can be seen lined up on the north side of the soccer field at Mittleman Jewish Community Center (MJCC) at 6651 S.W. Capitol Highway.

Cascadia Clusters, a construction company building tiny houses for the homeless, is in the process of moving its job site from the parking lot at Neveh Shalom, just off Southwest Dosch Road, to the grass play area just west of the MJCC main entrance. The "zombie RV," tiny house under construction, trailer, shipping container and assorted building materials on the field are the subject of discussion and speculation among outside diners at Seasons and Regions restaurant across the street.

More signs of a functioning construction company are on their way to the soccer field. Andy Olshin is the co-executive director and co-founder of Cascadia Clusters.Andy Olshin, co-executive director and founder of Cascadia Clusters, said additional towable structures should be at Mittleman after Labor Day and "before Rosh Hashanah," which begins at sundown on Sept. 29. A memorandum of understanding between MJCC and Cascadia is expected to be signed in August.

Olshin and Steve Albert, executive director of MJCC, both told the SW Connection there are no known plans to establish a homeless village in Southwest Portland.

Under the three-year agreement, Cascadia would sublease that section of the soccer field from MJCC, which leases its land from the Jewish Federation of Portland. In an email, Albert wrote that, "the playing field itself will continue to be used for MJCC programs as well as by Portland Jewish Academy."

Albert sees what he calls a "partnership" with Cascadia Clusters as, "an opportunity to engage in'tikkun olam' — a Hebrew phrase that means 'repair the world' — that enhances the inclusivity of our community by addressing the needs of homeless individuals."

BUILDING MORE THAN HOUSES

Toma Solano, co-founder of Cascadia Clusters, with  the firm's mission statement: 'Cascadia Clusters is constructing a transition out of homelessness by employing and training unhoused Portlanders to build tiny homes and develop tiny home communities.'

Toma Solano, the co-executive director of Cascadia Clusters, started the nonprofit a year ago with Olshin. He said building tiny houses and movable support structures like shower pods, "Addresses the issue of homelessness in a small but significant way.

"We want people to understand that there's going to be a variety of solutions. You have to start creating them in order to see this bigger picture becoming less overwhelming. If you don't break it up into its smaller parts, then it's going to be what it is," he said at the Neveh Shalom work site.

Bob Brimmer is one of the 'houseless' workers from Hazelnut Grove in North Portand rebuilding abandoned vehicles into tiny houses.Solano, Bob Brimmer and Will Stevens were putting the finishing touches on a six-foot-by-eight-foot converted camp trailer that eventually will be a "wash pod" - with shower, washer and dryer — at the Hazelnut Grove homeless village, home to the group of campers and movable houses that's been located in North Portland at Interstate and Greeley. Its imminent departure is coming none too soon for some residents in the Overlook neighborhood.

But Hazelnut Grove is home to Brimmer and Stevens, who were taught to build tiny houses there by Cascadia Clusters volunteers from the Congregation Beth Israel Brotherhood. Both now are paid employees who work about 30 hours per week.

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 said.

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.

In the near term, Cascadia Clusters hopes to complete the wash pod, convert a semi-trailer into a kitchen/pantry/commissary, build a few more tiny houses and train more people like Brimmer and Stevens.

Here's how Olshin describes the longer-term plan: "An alternative to shelters and an alternative to living on the streets is what we're building. One that gives someone self-determination and independence. They're kings of their own castle, so to speak, and they're part of a community."

NOT JUST A NONPROFIT

Cascadia Clusters Inc. is legally registered as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 charity with the State of Oregon. It also is registered with the Oregon Construction Contractor's Board. When its crews aren't building structures for the homeless, they could be remodeling your kitchen or doing a seismic retrofit.

"This is our first year," Solano said. "The guys are doing this work when we have grant funding. When we don't and just need to pay the bills, we're training them for actual residential work."

"The objective is to be able to train folks and encourage companies to hire them," Olshin said. "In order for them to be marketable, they can't just know how to build a tiny house because there aren't that many tiny house builders out there. We use the construction of tiny houses to teach job safety and how to use different tools and all the basic things you need to know for basic residential house construction."

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Solano, who gave up a job building high rises downtown, says there are a few ways to support what Cascadia Clusters is doing. People can work with their synagogue, mosque or church to sponsor a tiny house or one of the trainees.

"Develop a personal relationship with them and get to know a houseless person. That's scary for some people but they find that they're you minus some social safety net and structure to their lives," he said.

Olshin, who calls himself a "recovering lawyer," said Heritage Bank has stepped up by having staffers volunteer and that several Jewish youth groups have been involved. Volunteer opportunities are expected to increase after Labor Day.

"There are two things we want to do," he said. "First, build awareness of the reality of housing on the street — not what people see but what's behind it. What they don't see are these working poor folks who are just trying to make it to the next day.

"Second, to really get an understanding to the young people in our community that there are a lot of people who are not as well off as they are. We encourage people to do what we say in Judaism is to 'see the other,' the other person, the individual who has suffered some kind of trauma."

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For more information on volunteering, the MJCC will announce opportunities in its weekly email. To subscribe call the MJCC Welcome Desk at 503-244-0111.

You also can check the Cascadia Clusters website at cascadiaclusters.org.


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