Eugene churches that host homeless people on their property serve as model for Olympia

Oregon churches put up huts to help growing homeless population

Congregations around Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, say hosting homeless residents on church property is a win-win for their communities.
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Congregations around Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, say hosting homeless residents on church property is a win-win for their communities.

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.”

Church volunteer Barb Prentice, left, receives thanks from resident and friend Vickie (who did not want her last name used) outside huts in the parking lot of the Unitarian Univeralist Church in Eugene, Oregon. “My gratitude and my love for the women in the church... I would never forget it,” Vickie says. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

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.”

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Olympian reporter Abby Spegman and photojournalist Tony Overman traveled to Eugene to find out what churches there are doing to address homelessness and how that could work in Olympia. If journalism like this appeals to you, consider subscribing to The Olympian.

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.

How it works

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.)

Rick Underwood, left, and Tom McGowan chat outside their Conestoga huts at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Eugene, Oregon. Underwood was preparing to move into an apartment in the coming days. “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.” Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

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.

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 toverman@theolympian.com

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.

Will it work in Olympia?

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.

Vickie, a resident at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene, Oregon, stands in the doorway of her Conestoga hut. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

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.

Plum Street village

The city of Olympia is preparing to open a tiny home village for 40 homeless people and has hired Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute to manage the site and help residents find housing, health care and other services. LIHI and city officials will answer questions about the project at an information session at 6 p.m. Thursday at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW.

There will also be an open house from 3-6 p.m. Jan. 31 at the village, 830 Union Ave. SE.

Follow more of our reporting on Homelessness in Thurston County

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.