I was reading a story recently about ‘Conestoga’ huts, which a local group in Victoria thinks may be a way to house people who are living on the street. The idea originated in Eugene, Oregon, with Community-Supported Shelters, which describes itself as ‘pre-housing shelter services for people experiencing homelessness.”
This is how they describe their mission. “Rebuilding the lives of unhoused people through intentional community.” The non-profit group, based in Eugene, Oregon, is “leading the way on shelter options for individuals experiencing homelessness. We build sturdy Conestoga Hut shelters that are pleasing to the eye, create caring and collaborative communities, and provide extensive support that empowers clients to stabilize and rebuild their lives.”
The City of Eugene came up with the idea of ‘microsites’ – locations that provide transitional shelter to a small group of unhoused individuals. It is, as the city’s homeless policy analyst Regan Watjus describes it, “from emergency response to community recovery.”
Microsites are part of a range of initiatives to address housing needs of the unhoused.In April 2021, Eugene City Council approved an ordinance to create more safe and lawful places for people to sleep – Safe Sleep (and Parking). It allows for temporary “safe parking” and “safe tent” sites that could provide options for individuals to legally park their vehicles or sleep in tents, and will accommodate up to 60 vehicles or 40 tents. Social service providers manage the sites, monitoring who is on-site, coordinating infrastructure needs, responding to neighbor concerns, and coordinating with the City and other partners.
In the microsites, up to six Conestoga huts or tents are allowed. The City looks for workable sites that are flat and dry, have road access, are near public transport and services, and which minimize impacts to neighbors and sensitive areas. The Skinner City Farm Microsite is named for the flourishing community garden just east of it (the same rich river bottom soil holds promise for a productive garden for the camp in the future), and land provided free by the Eugene Mission. City staff keep looking for more.
CSS calls these Safe Spot Communities – legal, designated places for people who are without a conventional form of housing. CSS provides oversight to three of them, which each focus on a different demographic – people with disabilities, a site for veterans, and another site for a mixed population.
A Governance Handbook, developed by CSS in collaboration with the people in the Safe Spots and local city government, is the guiding document for SSC users. A few of the basic rules:
- No drugs and alcohol used onsite
- Violence or threats of violence are not tolerated
- Participants must attend monthly meetings, work parties, and personal check-ins with CSS Action Plan Advisers
- Every participant holds a volunteer task or role within the SSC
- General time limit of 10-months for participants
- Participants (except for gate-keeper volunteers) are required to leave the site from 10am to 4pm Mon thru Fri
The same principle of keeping things basic is also true of the infrastructure that serves program participants.
- Secure fence with a vehicle gate and pedestrian gate
- Conestoga Huts or raised tent platforms with durable covers
- Common space with wood-fired heat and solar charging station for small devices
- Common kitchen with a propane cookstove, running water, counter space, and food storage
- A place for gate-keeper volunteers
- Porta-potties and garbage receptacles
- Raised pathways
- Garden beds
In the screening process, Peer Support Workers conduct lengthy interviews with potential Safe Spot residents and explain the basics of the CSS program and camp culture. There is a fascinating article in a recent newsletter about how this process works.
“I let them know that honesty is the best policy,” says peer support worker MJ Hambrick. “Them being honest with us with what’s going on with them doesn’t keep them from getting a Hut, but helps us provide services that they need to make better choices.”
MJ acknowledges the challenges of building a community with an eclectic group of individuals coming from a wide variety of challenging circumstances. But that’s exactly what CSS is designed to do. “It’s just part of the program,” she says, “making things work as smoothly as we can.”
Peer Support Workers play a critical role in connecting residents to the CSS program. MJ, who was homeless for five years, says campers talked more freely to her “as soon as I started opening up and talking about my recovery and what I’ve been through.” That helped her develop emotional bonds that formed a basis for trust, she says. “And trusting somebody you’re talking to is super important.”
CSS staff members stress the importance of communications: through the weekly meetings, talking with Peer Support Workers, and developing the willingness to bring up problems before they get too big, including filling out “incident reports” when issues arise.
“People come from the streets, and that culture is not telling on one another,” MJ says. At every meeting, the facilitator encourages the campers to discuss “What’s burning for you? What’s happening?” But often, she says, people won’t bring up what might seem like a minor issue. CSS microsite facilitator Chris Plourde says that at first, some people moving from emergency camps had a hard time adjusting to CSS guidelines. “Some have adjusted very well but others couldn’t leave the street on the street. We had to let them go. We’ve come to recognize that’s a really big factor in being a success in these camps is leaving the street on the street.”
In Eugene, there are 12 different host locations with between three and 18 huts, Erik de Buhr told the Capital Daily. Each little community has its own common space, kitchen, garden beds, bathrooms, and a charging station.
De Buhr said that although the Conestoga huts were initially designed as an affordable, quick way for housed people to create backyard communities, he’s been overwhelmed to see the difference having a quiet, safe place to rest has made in the lives of unhoused people. “It gives people on the street hope that they can live semi-autonomous, contributing lives, and it gives them a stepping stone to improve their life circumstances.”
In a wonderful example of horizontal learning, some of the CSS folks have been visiting Victoria, BC, to the north, to share their learning.
In Victoria, film maker Krista Loughton and the other volunteer organizers have spent nearly 100 hours on the project since December—fundraising about $8,000 through a GoFundMe, finding a host for the prototype hut, and preparing all the supplies for their first build.
They have enough funds to build a second Conestoga hut and have partnered with a local homeowner to find a place to build it, and they hope to move Alex Bourque, who’s been living on a street downtown for the past year, within the next two weeks. The volunteers also are talking with local municipalities to get a bylaw exemption for the huts so they can house other residents who need them.
Microsites. City of Eugene.