Eu­gene churches host home­less on prop­erty, serve as model for Olympia

The Olympian - - Front Page - BY ABBY SPEGMAN as­peg­[email protected]­

It’s Thurs­day, two days after Christ­mas, and the Uni­tar­ian Uni­ver­sal­ist Church in Eu­gene, Ore­gon, is quiet ex­cept for the or­gan player prac­tic­ing in the sanc­tu­ary. Down the hall, in a sun-filled class­room, two women are play­ing Rum­mikub, a sort of gin rummy us­ing tiles in­stead of cards.

“Well, you’ve got­ten me the past two games,” says one of the women, who gives her name only as Vickie, as she stud­ies the ta­ble. “You’ve got me stuck.”

“That makes two of us,” says the other, Barb Pren­tice, a church vol­un­teer.

A com­bi­na­tion of health and per­sonal prob­lems left Vickie home­less a few years ago. Like a bad souf­fle in the oven, she says, her prob­lems grew and grew and then life just col­lapsed.

She had been stay­ing at a shel­ter in Eu­gene be­fore mov­ing into a hut on the church’s prop­erty five years ago. Here, she felt an im­me­di­ate sense of se­cu­rity. Now she has health in­sur­ance and gets rides to doc­tors’ ap­point­ments.

She and Pren­tice meet most Thurs­days to play Rum­mikub while Vickie does her laun­dry.

“My grat­i­tude and my love for the women in the church … I would never for­get it,” Vickie says. “With my friend­ship that I have with (Pren­tice) and with peo­ple of the church that I have other friend­ships with, if I didn’t live on the prop­erty, I would still come see her ev­ery Thurs­day and I would still come to ser­vices.”

In the Eu­gene area, about two dozen churches al­low home­less peo­ple to live on their prop­erty, ei­ther in tents or ve­hi­cles or tem­po­rary shel­ters. A non­profit screens would-be res­i­dents, and

the churches de­cide what types of peo­ple they can house and how long they can stay.

Ad­vo­cates say that while the pro­gram houses rel­a­tively few peo­ple, it of­fers a much-needed bridge be­tween those who have homes and those who don’t.

“Peo­ple over here can’t un­der­stand why the peo­ple over here make the de­ci­sions they make,” says Erik de Buhr, co-founder of the Eu­gene non­profit Com­mu­nity Sup­ported Shel­ters, which makes and do­nates huts to churches to house peo­ple. “You have to en­gage with an open mind.”

Faith lead­ers in Olympia are look­ing to repli­cate the pro­gram, backed by a $100,000 com­mit­ment from the city of Olympia. Their aim is to get peo­ple out of large, un­man­aged camps like the ones that ap­peared this fall in down­town and give them a sense of sta­bil­ity while they try to find per­ma­nent hous­ing.

The church pro­gram would of­fer an­other op­tion in ad­di­tion to the man­aged camp the city opened on Olympia Av­enue North­east down­town in De­cem­ber and a tiny home vil­lage the city is set to open in Fe­bru­ary next to the Yashiro Ja­pa­nese Gar­den on Plum Street South­east.


Eu­gene — like Olympia and many other cities up and down the West Coast — has been grap­pling with how to ad­dress home­less­ness for years. It has city-sanc­tioned home­less camps, emer­gency overnight shel­ters, and a per­ma­nent tiny home vil­lage.

It also has churches that have long in­vited peo­ple liv­ing in their cars to park on church prop­erty, no city per­mit or ap­proval re­quired. Over the years that was ex­tended to cover peo­ple liv­ing in trail­ers, tents, huts and tiny homes on wheels.

The city al­lows hosts — not just churches but non­prof­its, busi­nesses, even pri­vate res­i­dences — to have up to six struc­tures. It con­tracts with St. Vin­cent de Paul, which man­ages more than 40 such sites in the Eu­gene-Spring­field area. The group screens and places res­i­dents and pro­vides por­ta­ble re­strooms and garbage col­lec­tion at no cost to hosts. (Hosts can go it alone with­out St. Vin­cent de Paul’s help, though few do.)

Wes­ley United Methodist Church sits on 2.5 acres in the Cal Young neigh­bor­hood of Eu­gene. It has three huts from Com­mu­nity Sup­ported Shel­ters on the back of its prop­erty, by a com­mu­nity gar­den com­plete with a labyrinth and raised beds built by lo­cal Boy Scouts. The church de­signed its pro­gram to be tran­si­tional hous­ing for men, mostly veter­ans al­ready on wait­ing lists for per­ma­nent hous­ing.

The Conestoga hut, named for its re­sem­blance to a pi­o­neer’s Conestoga wagon, is de­signed so that vol­un­teers can as­sem­ble it in a few hours. Each one has a small porch and a front door that locks. In­side there is a bed frame, mat­tress, a win­dow on the back wall and space for stor­age.

Wes­ley’s huts have heat and elec­tric­ity. Res­i­dents use re­strooms in­side the church but have to go else­where to shower. The Rev. Kar­lene Clark guesses many neigh­bors don’t re­al­ize the huts are back there.

“There’s al­ways NIMBY (not in my back yard) peo­ple, but their fears are not usu­ally based in re­al­ity. It’s un­for­tu­nate be­cause this is noth­ing to be afraid of,” Clark says. “The vast ma­jor­ity of this goes re­ally well. Once in a while, things go wrong.”

Like the time a man moved out sud­denly and gave his key to some­one who hadn’t been screened to live there. Or the time a man brought with him a bunch of feral cats. In those cases, Clark says, it was help­ful to have a part­ner like St. Vin­cent de Paul to call on.

“I don’t rec­om­mend do­ing this on your own un­less you have a lot of con­nec­tions,” she says.

The Epis­co­pal Church of St. John the Di­vine in Spring­field houses four peo­ple in three huts on the edge of its park­ing lot. The Rev. Nancy Gal­lagher says half-jok­ingly that her small con­gre­ga­tion, which av­er­ages 35 peo­ple for Sun­day ser­vice, started out with a lot of ex­pec­ta­tions: that res­i­dents would only stay a few months, that they’d be mem­bers of the church, that they’d be eter­nally grate­ful for the help.

“We started out with a lot of rules be­cause, you know, you want rules so you can say ‘Look you promised to do this and you didn’t and now you have to stop,’” she says.

All the rules in the world could not have guar­an­teed her a res­i­dent like David Eng­land, who has lived in the park­ing lot a year and a half. Eng­land helps run the church’s food pantry and keeps an eye on the prop­erty when Gal­lagher is gone. When the church’s jan­i­tor re­tired, Eng­land took over main­te­nance du­ties.

De Buhr says the pro­gram’s suc­cess is less about giv­ing peo­ple a place to live and more about the op­por­tu­nity for en­gage­ment be­tween church mem­bers and res­i­dents. Home­less peo­ple need to feel con­nected to the “real world,” he says, while “real world” peo­ple need to get to know those liv­ing on the streets on a per­sonal level.

“Where we’re try­ing to make a dif­fer­ence is cre­at­ing very sim­ple en­vi­ron­ments with very sim­ple in­fra­struc­ture where peo­ple can start to think dif­fer­ently about their cir­cum­stances,” de Buhr says.


In Olympia, a group of church rep­re­sen­ta­tives — called FAITH, for Faith Al­liance Ini­tia­tive for Tiny Houses — has been meet­ing since the fall to dis­cuss hous­ing home­less peo­ple on church prop­erty.

This is not the first time Olympia has bor­rowed an idea from Eu­gene. Olympia Po­lice Depart­ment is launch­ing a mo­bile cri­sis unit, in­spired by a sim­i­lar pro­gram in Eu­gene, and Olympia Po­lice Chief Ron­nie Roberts used to work in Eu­gene.

Some of the churches rep­re­sented in FAITH were among those that hosted a home­less camp formed in 2007 that evolved into Quixote Vil­lage, a tiny home vil­lage near U.S. High­way 101. Back then, the city re­quired the camp to move ev­ery 90 days (later that was ex­tended to ev­ery six months), and it ro­tated among half a dozen churches un­til it opened at its per­ma­nent site on Christ­mas Eve in 2013.

In June, at the start of a wide-reach­ing ef­fort to ad­dress home­less­ness in Olympia, the City Coun­cil re­vised the city’s or­di­nance on home­less camps — first passed in the days of Camp Quixote — to al­low for camps of up to 40 peo­ple hosted by non­prof­its, churches and lo­cal gov­ern­ment. As of this month, no group has ap­plied to host such a camp.

Churches told city of­fi­cials they were in­ter­ested but con­cerned about re­quire­ments in the or­di­nance, says Amy Buck­ler, the city’s down­town pro­grams man­ager. In De­cem­ber, the coun­cil ap­proved re­vi­sions that made the per­mit­ting process eas­ier and re­moved re­quire­ments re­lated to park­ing and fenc­ing around camps.

Un­like in Eu­gene, hosts in Olympia would have to dis­cuss their plans with neigh­bors be­fore open­ing, sub­mit a se­cu­rity plan to the city, and have a camp man­ager avail­able at all times.

The city com­mit­ted $100,000 for a pi­lot project this year to pay for por­ta­ble re­strooms, garbage re­moval and other util­i­ties at two camps with up to six shel­ters and one camp with up to 20. The money also will pay to hire a ser­vice provider to help churches man­age the sites.

FAITH or­ga­nizer Peter Cook ex­pects the first church to have its ap­pli­ca­tion into the city this month and have peo­ple moved onto its prop­erty soon after that.

“We need the guinea pigs to get peo­ple in­ter­ested and see that it’s work­ing here in Olympia. We think it’s go­ing to catch on after that,” he says. Abby Spegman: 360-704- 6869

TONY OVERMAN tover­[email protected]­

Vickie, a res­i­dent at the Uni­tar­ian Uni­ver­sal­ist Church in Eu­gene, Ore­gon, stands in the door­way of her Conestoga hut.

TONY OVERMAN tover­[email protected]­

The Rev. Kar­lene Clark of Wes­ley United Methodist Church in Eu­gene, Ore­gon, in­tro­duces her­self to Tom McGowan, who lives be­hind the church. “A lot of the neigh­bors don’t re­al­ize that you’re here at all,” she tells him. “I’d love our neigh­bors to know that you are a gift to the neigh­bor­hood, be­cause you are.”

TONY OVERMAN tover­[email protected]­

The Rev. Nancy Gal­lagher and David Eng­land plan the day’s work at the Epis­co­pal Church of St. John the Di­vine in Spring­field, Ore­gon. The con­gre­ga­tion hosts four peo­ple in three Conestoga huts on its prop­erty. “We are a lit­tle group of old tired peo­ple, and we’re on fire,” Gal­lagher says. “We are mighty, we are fierce. We can’t solve all the prob­lems, but we’re solv­ing prob­lems.”

TONY OVERMAN tover­[email protected]­

Rick Un­der­wood pre­pares to leave his hut at Wes­ley United Methodist Church and move into an apart­ment. “I lost my job and kinda got left out in the cold. I was afraid to ask for help,” he says. “These peo­ple ... got me into these places, help­ing me out with the hous­ing pro­gram, got me an apart­ment. It’s work­ing out.”

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