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Portland State University researched six village pod communities as alternatives to congregate shelters

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Kenton Womens Village is one of six tiny pod villages in Portland that was included in a research project into the efficiency and success of Portlands homeless villages.A report released Tuesday, April 5 highlights unparalleled research into the success and opportunities for improvement among Portland's tiny pod villages for the homeless.

The two-year study conducted by Portland State University's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative relied on interviews with 42 village residents in six homeless villages, most of them in Portland. The report, released Tuesday, includes best practices and recommendations on pod village designs as a tool for cities considering similar options for sheltering homeless populations.

The tiny pod village concept, which uses fabricated pods akin to tiny homes, is already being used at several sites in Portland and the city's latest Safe Rest Village plan relies on the same design concept. PSU's homelessness research team consulted with Dignity Village, Hazelnut Grove, Kenton Women's Shelter, Clackamas County Veterans Village, Agape Village and St. John's Village.

Todd Ferry was the lead researcher on the grant-funded project and co-founder of the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative (HRAC).

Ferry and other researchers found that villagers' satisfaction was tied to their sense of safety and agency over their own lives, which traditional shelter models don't typically offer.

"Giving villagers a voice and sense of agency over how villages operate had a huge impact on villager satisfaction," Ferry said. "It didn't have to be a full self-governance model, but just a clear way that they were involved in decisions."

But Ferry emphasized Tuesday during a press conference that while the village pod model has been successful as a transition to get people off the streets, "the solution to homelessness is affordable, supportive housing."

Key findings:

• Villagers do best in settings with no more than 30 people living at one site;

• Most villages in Portland are primarily serving white men, though people of color make up 40% of Portland's homeless population;

• 86% of villagers were largely or very satisfied with their pod, 69% were satisfied or very satisfied with their village, 79% were satisfied or very satisfied with their neighborhood;

• Food insecurity remains a major problem, with 45% of villagers reporting lack of access to nutritious food;

• Most neighbors who reported concerns at first did not have concerns after living near a village;

• 69% of villagers said that they should share in decision making at the village. Overall, the feeling of having a voice in the village had major impacts on villager satisfaction.

Researchers from the university's psychology, urban planning and architecture departments said they wanted to know if the village model "was working as intended," and learn more about who is being served and how future homeless villages could be improved. The report notes that most residents in Portland's pod villages reported satisfaction with their lives, while concerns from nearby neighbors about safety and property values diminished over time. Researchers consulted real estate databases and Realtors and found most properties neighboring established villages saw no significant changes in property values.

Dignity Village, Portland's oldest homeless village, was established in 2000 as a protest movement by people experiencing homelessness. It's now a self-governed village with 45 pods onsite and 60 people living there. Residents typically spend about 1.7 years there. It costs about $33,000 a year to operate, with a $70 monthly cost to residents, according to the study.

In contrast, Kenton Women's Village, which is managed by Catholic Charities, contains 20 sleeping pods, is free to residents and costs an estimated $850,000, funded by the city of Portland and Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services. In the first four years of its operation, 39 women transitioned to permanent housing after staying at the Women's Village.

Similarly, the Clackamas County Veterans Village, which has 26 pods and is managed by village residents and nonprofit Do Good Multnomah, reported 26 people transitioned into permanent housing during the village's first two years of operation.

Researchers noted the need for villages to address the needs of marginalized communities, which are overrepresented in Oregon's homeless population, but underrepresented in its pod villages.

LaQuida Landford is a health worker, community organizer and activist leading what she calls the "AfroVillage movement."

Landford said while previously working with the Urban League of Portland, she noticed a reluctance among Black Portlanders to enter established villages.

"Black people, in particular, didn't feel accepted or wanted or welcomed in some of those spaces," Landford said Tuesday during the PSU press conference. "I wanted to create a space and a community for Black folks and people displaced from their neighborhoods, but the idea was also to create space for people from Portland and those newly arriving to Portland to participate in community."

Landford is working with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to try to repurpose an old MAX light rail car as a hub for services for unhoused Black Portlanders.

Pros and cons

Researchers noted the village pod model is often preferred by those who want a community-based alternative to congregate shelters, which require sleeping in shared spaces with little privacy.

Villages have been described by residents as places to "heal, build community, and prepare for a transition to permanent housing from a position of greater empowerment."

The model is increasing in popularity, but researchers concluded it requires a thoughtful approach that doesn't shuffle resources away from long-term housing solutions.

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