Friday, December 14, 2012

Council Approves Garfield Site for Pilot Project

Originally posted in the Register Guard on December 11 by Saul Hubbard
It won’t be up and running for the coldest snaps of this winter as they’d originally hoped, but homeless advocates won their biggest bureaucratic victory to date on Monday for their proposed Opportunity Village Eugene.
After examining potential sites for several months, the City Council picked a vacant lot on North Garfield Street near Roose­velt Boulevard as the future site of a “micro-housing pilot project for the homeless.” The vacant lot was among five sites under consideration.
Aerial imagery of the site on North Garfield Street towards the end of its use as a trailer park.  The site has since been sold to the city and is currently vacant.
The council approved, on a 6-1 vote, a motion that allows city staff to select a nonprofit organization to operate the pilot program and to enter into a lease agreement with the agency for use of the city-owned property. Councilor Mike Clark voted against the motion, and Councilor George Poling was absent.
“We’ve got a bunch of citizens who’ve put a huge amount of work into this proposal,” Councilor Alan Zelenka said after the vote. “I didn’t want to wait another month. I felt we had enough information (about the sites) to move ahead now.”
Zelenka cautioned that the process of securing a conditional-use permit for the homeless site could take “between four and six months.” That means the village might not be operational until April or June, at the earliest.
With little discussion, the council also expedited an ordinance that will allow 6-foot-by-14-foot wood-frame structures, called Conestoga huts, to be used by the homeless population at city-endorsed vehicle-camping sites.
After the city’s legal counsel determined that the structures, made of plywood and siding with a vinyl roof, could not be considered tents — which are allowed at the vehicle-camping sites — the council unanimously signed off on discussing and potentially approving a new ordinance allowing for the huts at those sites at its meeting on Wednesday. The speeded-up process means the ordinance will require six votes, more than a simple majority, to pass.
Earlier in the evening, the councilors heard close to 90 minutes of often-impassioned testimony on the issue of homelessness in Eugene, much of which centered on criticism of the council’s inaction on the Opportunity Village project.
Speakers, fearful that the council would punt on the proposal until next year, stressed the dangers of living on the streets, from physical violence and the threat of arrest to the harsh winter cold. Instead, a council majority decided to settle on the Garfield site before its winter recess.
“I think it’s a very good choice, given the choices that we have,” said Councilor Claire Syrett.
Added Zelenka: “It made sense from the standpoint that it was the site with the least amount of controversy.”
Conversely, Clark, who said he is supportive of many other initiatives to help the local homeless population, said he believed the concept itself hadn’t received enough vetting.
“It’s still something that we haven’t had as thorough a discussion about ... as we should,” he said.
Zelenka said many of the finer details about the pilot project will have to be worked out by city staff.
Under Zelenka’s motion, the lease with the nonprofit agency requires “insurance to protect the city against liability.” The pilot project will sunset on Oct. 1, 2014. No later than March 2014, the motion states, the city manager will report back to the council with recommendations for improvements, should the council decide to continue the experiment.
The council did not address a request by a homeless advocacy group and several members of the audience to eliminate the city’s ban on overnight camping on public property, including city parks.
The other sites under consideration for the homeless village had included the former Naval Reserve Center property at West 13th Avenue and Chambers Street, near Chavez Elementary School, and three grassy parcels next to Interstate 105 near student apartment complexes northeast of Autzen Stadium.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Conestoga Hut

The Conestoga hut is capturing the heart of Eugene!  The 6 by 10 foot shelter can be built for between $250 and $500 depending on the utilization of re-used or donated materials.  While this is a similar price to a quality tent, the Conestoga makes significant improvements upon the tent – most notably a highly insulated and lockable space – while minimizing the cost, skill and labor required by a more conventional, four-walled structure.  These economical and functional shelters can be instrumental in the transition from camp to village.

There are four components to a Conestoga hut: a basic 6 by 10 foot insulated floor, two solid, insulated walls in the front and back, and a metal wire roof that is curved to connect to the long sides of the floor.  The roofing frame is then covered with insulation and outdoor vinyl that is attached to the base of the structure.  

The result is a structure that resembles the Conestoga wagons used during early American westward expansion.  The components of the shelter can then be easily assembled or disassembled on site and transported with ease.  This creates the opportunity for residents to participate in the process of establishing their own shelter, drawing a reference to the rugged individualism again linked with the Conestoga wagon.

Eric de Buhr of the Tine Hive developed the concept last winter as an economical and functional means of shelter at the Occupy Camp.  In the past few weeks a small group has refined the design, making the hut slightly larger and more aesthetic.

The purpose of building these huts is to expand St. Vincent De Paul’s  (SVDP) existing car camping program, which already allows one to three RVs or tents to stay on land hosted by faith communities, businesses, non-profit organizations, or governmental offices.  SVDP has the capacity to manage an additional 10 sites.  Placing huts on these sites will provide more unhoused citizens a safe and secure place to be in Eugene.

The hut has been carted around the city in order to garner support for building a lot more of them.  So far it has been set up at the Park Blocks before a City Council meeting and then just outside the Holiday Market.  The reaction from the larger community has been overwhelmingly positive.  Don Dezarn, president of Pacific Headwear, has donated the money needed to construct 10 huts and has challenged other local business owners to match his contribution. We have also received a flood of e-mail from groups and individuals interested in helping to build the huts or donate materials (If you’re interested in contributing, visit the Conestoga hut website to get detailed information on how to help).

The Reverend Brent Was, board member of Opportunity Village Eugene, and the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection have already agreed to host the first two huts as part of the car camping program, and are conversing with neighboring religious organizations to see if they will do the same.

The non-profit Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE) sees this as a chance to incrementally begin to realize our vision for a village of simple micro-houses.  City Council has recently approved a pilot project for such a village on North Garfield Street, but the process for approving a conditional use permit may take 4 to 6 months.  Establishing small groupings of huts now on camping sites throughout the city will provide the chance to lay an initial physical and social foundation for the village.

In a few months, the huts could then be disassembled and relocated to the Garfield site, which will allow residents to obtain the benefits of living in community rather than being isolated to small groups across the city. If someone moves to the village in a Conestoga and then works to construct a more advanced structure, what we are calling a “second settler,” the hut could then be disassembled and rotated out to a new or existing camping site.  The satellite camping sites could then serve as a waiting list and transitional zone between the street and the village.