One year later, Quixote Village guides homeless residents toward self-sufficiency

One year ago on Christmas Eve, Byron Thorpe finally found a warm place to sleep.

That was the day Quixote Village opened with 30 single-room detached cottages in west Olympia for homeless residents who had been staying in a tent community.

When he woke up Christmas morning, Thorpe grabbed his coat and went outside to find a portable toilet — before he remembered the bathroom inside his cottage.

After being homeless for 18 years, Thorpe was ready for even bigger changes. In the past year, he has gotten clean and sober.

“This here was a blessing,” said Thorpe, 55, sitting by the window in his 144-square-foot cottage. “It was one of the best Christmas presents I ever got.”

About two-thirds of Quixote Village’s original residents are still living at the community, located on Mottman Road in an industrial area near South Puget Sound Community College.

The overarching goal is to teach residents to become self-sufficient, according to board members for Panza, the nonprofit organization that led the effort to build the village and serves as its landlord.

Village residents cook their meals in the community building’s shared kitchen. The building includes showers, laundry facilities and a meeting space. Paid staff at Quixote Village help connect residents with employment, benefits, medical care and counseling.

As of this week, Quixote Village has two vacancies. Some people have been evicted because of the village’s sobriety rules, while others have left for better housing.

“We’re getting better at understanding who will work here well,” said Tim Ransom, board member.

Since opening in 2013, the 2.17-acre village has attracted international attention from the media as well as visitors who seek a template for housing projects in other cities.

Bruce Wallbaum of Occupy Madison Inc. visited Quixote Village a few weeks before it opened. He also traveled to similar communities in Oregon and California to get ideas for his organization’s housing plans in Wisconsin.

Occupy Madison recently opened three portable units for about $5,000 each, Wallbaum said, but they lack electricity and plumbing connections that are found in the Olympia development. He praised Quixote Village organizers for being able to work with local government to make the project a reality.

“Their houses are more advanced than any other tiny-house village I’ve seen,” Wallbaum told The Olympian. “That’s the example we would all like to have.”

Quixote Village has been criticized for its cost, which was about $3.05 million. Panza board members have defended the price, which averages out to about $102,000 per cottage.

The price included the cottages, community building and development, according to the Panza board. The project was financed by federal, state and county funding. Thurston County is leasing the land for $1 a year.

Quixote Village was designed to be permanent, and required quality construction to uphold the village’s commitment to stay open a minimum of 40 years, said board member Jill Severn. Construction crews were paid higher “prevailing wages” due to the use of public grant money.

“We built it to code,” Severn said, “and we built it to last.”

Brie Wellman, 21, is the youngest resident at Quixote Village. In the past year, she has found a job and wants to go back to school. She also has filled another void in her life.

“I talk to my family now,” said Wellman, who is glad to be off the streets and living in a safer place. “They don’t have to worry about me nearly as much.”

Another original resident, Theresa Bitner, 25, echoed similar sentiments. She and Wellman are a couple, and they hope to someday move into an apartment and open a small café.

Quixote residents are asked to pay about 30 percent of their income toward rent, and Bitner said this cheaper rent is helping the couple get on their feet. Bitner, who works as a cook at an assisted living facility, said the village also has helped address her health issues. If it weren’t for the village, Bitner said she’d be a “downtown kid” surrounded by negative influences on Olympia’s streets.

“A lot of people need help with addictions,” she said, “and this is a good place to start.”