Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

Home Petite Home

In the Pacific Northwest, people with nowhere else to go are forming micro-communities with communal kitchens and toilets but teeny, individual sleeping units. Could tiny homes, once the provenance of design blogs, help curb homelessness nationwide?

A steady rain beat down outside, but in the small, cluttered stand-alone structure that serves as the administrative office for Dignity Village — a 14-year-old tent city turned semipermanent experimental housing community on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon — Mitch Grubic was snug and dry, albeit a bit chilly.

Mitch Grubic Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

He fingered an unlit cigarette he’d just pawned from his girlfriend, Debbie, with whom he shares one of 43 roughly 10-by-12-foot “tiny homes” at Dignity. Grubic, a handsome, ruddy-faced 51-year-old, was recounting how he went from being a California carpenter doing high-end residential work to living in his Ford Bronco with his two dogs and $1,400 to his name, desperately seeking pickup work along the Oregon coast.

Turns out, how Grubic got from that particular A to B wasn’t too different from how many of his Dignity neighbors got there: After Grubic’s dad died in 2007, Grubic remodeled his dad’s Northern California house and sold it, buying his own place nearby. But then the 2008 recession hit, his work dried up, and he had to let go of his new house. He built himself a low-cost hunting lodge but ran afoul of local authorities regarding permits. So he sold most of his tools and drove north, into Oregon.

“I went begging for work,” he recalled. Finally, in Seaside, he found it — as a glazier, making $12 an hour. He’d park his truck in Fort Stevens State Park, showering there and sleeping in yurts. But come fall, his work vanished, and the area had scant services for homeless people, so he drove to Portland. “I was parking and sleeping on the city streets,” he said, hitting the employment office or the library during the day to look for work.

Eventually, by 2010, he found an isolated, mostly industrial part of town out near the airport to park and sleep at night. Little did he know that he was not far from Dignity Village, where homeless people and their supporters had started building cottages three years before.

“I asked a food bank in Portland if I could park my truck there,” recalled Grubic. “They said no, but to go check out Dignity Village.” Lo and behold, he said, he realized he’d been sleeping nearby for months. (It’s funny he never once glimpsed the village’s cluster of cottages, fenced into the city’s former leaf composting yard.) So Grubic got on Dignity’s waiting list and started putting in volunteer hours there toward his residence.

Dignity Village Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

“People were mean at first,” said Grubic, who has a gruff but warm demeanor. “They said, ‘You’re not village material.’” But he stuck it out, going to pick up donated pizza for the other villagers, gardening, and using his expertise to trim out unfinished windows. “I started to see the eclectic beauty of it all.”

He also started to see, as he put it, “the vision that Dignity stood for — of a place with open arms where people could get clean [from drugs or alcohol], get a change of socks, get warm in winter, get water.” He added, “I needed water.”

That was 2011. In 2013, Grubic served as Dignity’s CEO for a year, and, last year, he was vice chair. Now he’s the security coordinator. He’s overseen work parties to get most of the cottages insulated and Sheetrocked, via various grants. And he’s grateful. “This place helped me create a home base to go out and find work again,” he said.

Currently, he does construction five days a week, making $100 a day and, per Dignity rules, putting $25 a month toward the village’s operating expenses. He and Debbie are on a list to get into permanent affordable housing, as everyone at Dignity must be.

Mitch and Debbie with their dogs. Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

But he didn’t think he’d put the Dignity experience entirely behind him. “I’d like to become an advocate for the tiny-house village movement,” he said, showing off the little structure — complete with front porch — where he and Debbie live with his two dogs: Juneau, a corgi, and Zooey, a Baja terrier. He says that life at Dignity is far from ideal, but he’s still proud of what it represents. For other cities looking for examples of this approach as a way to alleviate homelessness, “We’ve become the go-to place,” he said.

And not only that. Dignity and other such villages raise compelling questions that may direct the future of this nascent movement: Should these communities be low-budget affairs largely built through philanthropy and run by residents, as is Dignity, or are they better off as professional, high-budget projects overseen by an outside corporation or nonprofit? Or, as Grubic put it, “Is this a place for the homeless to govern themselves or a business venture?”

Visiting three villages in the rainy Pacific Northwest last fall, I saw how each offered a different pathway, representing our deepest attitudes about the homeless, property, and how we think people should live.

Opportunity Village Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

Grubic is right that Dignity has set a precedent. There were few examples of sanctioned homeless villages before Dignity — Dome Village, a cluster of geodesic domes, existed in Downtown L.A. from 1993 to 2006. But since Dignity transformed in the mid-2000s, with city and community support, from a tent community to one with wooden structures heated with small propane tanks, the idea of a village for homeless people made up of a cluster of “tiny homes” with larger structures for shared baths, kitchen, and lounging has taken hold. (Dignity even has the odd distinction of seemingly having been replicated in the video game Grand Theft Auto V.)

A dome structure in downtown Los Angeles. Oscar Hidalgo / AP Photo

There’s Village of Hope in Fresno, California (established 2004); River Haven in Ventura, California (2004); Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon, and Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington (both 2013). In the works or early phases are OM Village in Madison, Wisconsin; Second Wind Cottages in upstate New York; Community First in Austin, Texas; and Emerald Village in Eugene.

These villages tend to be a hybrid of two trends. One is the tent city, a kind of homeless encampment that goes back at least as far as the Depression and that received revived attention from the media once the recession hit, then again in 2011 when several emerged amid the Occupy Wall Street movement. Tent cities crop up in unused city lots, under bridges, in forests, or by riverbanks; usually go unsanctioned by urban governments; and may or may not have some kind of self-governance. (A massive one, in fact, was just shut down in San Jose, where the tech boom has pushed the average monthly rent up to nearly $3,000 — and has pushed many into homelessness.) They usually do not have plumbing, electrical wiring, or heating.

The other trend is the tiny-home movement, which has become increasingly chic in recent years as Americans look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and to live more economically. The movement has been popularized by such websites as The Tiny House Blog, books including Lloyd Kahn’s Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter and Jay Shafer’s The Small House Book, and a documentary, all of which feature adorable, dollhouse-like homes of about 500 square feet or less that people have built and live in for dramatically lower costs than the average new American home.

Tiny-home villages for the homeless have retained the idea of everyone having their own tiny structure to sleep and find privacy in, but have, for the most part, consolidated bathroom, kitchen, and recreational space into one or two communal buildings with some combination of plumbing, electricity, and heat. In many ways, they are a multi-roof version of the old-fashioned urban SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel or boarding house, with separate bedrooms but shared baths and kitchen, that provided the working and nonworking poor with affordable living options in so many cities before gentrification turned those properties into boutique hotels or market-rate apartments.

Andrew Heben Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

“We’ve lost the SRO and only build to middle-class standards now,” said Andrew Heben, a young urban planner in Eugene who played a role in the building of Opportunity Village and writes a blog on the topic called Tent City Urbanism and has a new book out by the same name. Heben is a sandy-haired, mild-mannered 27-year-old Ohio native who did his senior thesis at the University of Cincinnati on the upside of homeless tent cities — for example, they foster organic systems of self-governance and mutual aid. He travels frequently to make presentations in small and midsize Western cities that are interested in creating tiny-home villages for their own homeless populations.

Heben called today’s tiny-home villages “an early example of something that’s coming,” as both environmental concerns and income inequality put pressure on low- and middle-income Americans to find ways to live more cheaply. “People see that a lot of us will be living like this in the future.”

In this regard, they may be solutions that not only alleviate homelessness, but also prevent it by creating more affordable housing. They provide an option below the lowest rungs of market rent, which in cities such as Portland and Eugene can start around $700. In the gap between such rents and low-income units (such as those subsidized by the federal Section 8 program), for which there are often long waits, homeless people often have no options except for shelters — which afford no privacy and, more vexingly, usually kick people out between early morning and late afternoon — or the streets.

To that end, Heben is helping to develop Eugene’s Emerald Village, a larger model where more sophisticated cottages will cost between $10,000 and $15,000 apiece to build and residents will have to put in up to $200 monthly but will also accrue equity in their cottages. At Opportunity, teams spent about four hours building each cottage. “It’s just putting jigsaw puzzle pieces together,” Heben said. An Emerald cottage’s shell alone will take about a day, with further construction needed to finish it out, and each one will be pre-insulated and hooked up with water and electricity.

A simple structure at Opportunity Village. Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

They may sound prefab, but tiny-home villages, governed and operated at least in part by the villagers themselves, offer a modicum of safety, stability, warmth, cleanliness, autonomy, and privacy. The feds “have very high standards for [traditional] affordable housing and it’s quite expensive,” said Kitty Piercy, Eugene’s mayor, “so Opportunity and Emerald are ways for us to be able to help some people at a much-reduced cost.”

Add to that reduced fear and stress on the part of residents. “I don’t wanna live here forever,” I was told on a visit to Opportunity Village by a wiry, sweet-natured, 42-year-old recovering alcoholic who goes by the name Johnny Awesome. He was building a small greenhouse onto the front of his cheerful blue cottage, festooned with colored flags and a small disco ball. “This isn’t the top rung of society,” he said. “And the weather dictates a typical day here too much.” Sunny days found residents outside, gardening and building; rainy and cold ones found them holed up in their cottages or congregating in the 30-foot-diameter communal yurt containing computers with Wi-Fi, a large-screen TV, and a pantry.

“But it’s safe here,” he said. It was a far cry better than a few years ago, when he was living in his car. Having a home base, he told me, was allowing him to pursue his career goal of becoming a trauma counselor.

But of course, the tiny-home village can’t flourish everywhere, especially large, densely populated cities with astronomical land values. So far, they seem to be occurring in and around mid- and small-size Western cities whose cultures have some mix of permissive, progressive politics and a certain pioneer DIY spirit. That could also describe Silicon Valley, at least as it sees itself; the irony is that the pioneering spirit of one world (tech) is, in the American West, creating the very kind of extreme income inequality and gouged realty markets that contribute to homelessness. Perhaps no wonder, then, that tiny homes for homeless people are among the housing options that local officials began exploring last year; Leslye Corsiglia, San Jose’s recently departed housing director, said the city’s new mayor likes the idea, “so I think there will be some movement [on such a project] in the not-too-distant future.”

However, Ray Bramson, San Jose’s homelessness response manager, said in an e-mail that “while the tiny homes model does offer some benefit in terms of initially low capital/construction costs, the overall high cost of land combined with the lack of available space and the numerous regulatory barriers makes the approach difficult to advance in San Jose.” Bramson said the city would likely go with a temporary trailer-home model, but at the moment no such funding exists for the project.

“These villages might fill a small niche but I don’t see them as a major solution to the problem of homelessness,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at the New School in New York, a city that is trying to solve its own considerable homelessness problem both by reinstating rental subsidies to poor families that were cut back in the era of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and by aiming to build 200,000 new units of affordable housing. Previously, Bloomberg also announced plans to build apartments in the form of “microunits” ranging from 250 to 375 square feet, which are slated to open this summer.

“Not to say [such villages] are absolutely impossible” in a city like New York, said Schwartz, “but commercially zoned land is at a premium. Multi-unit solutions [under one roof] make a lot more sense.”

Mary Cunningham, who studies homelessness and housing at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank The Urban Institute, agreed. Government housing vouchers and more public housing are the way to go, she told me. “But,” she conceded, “there’s just not enough to go around, and funding programs get cut every year. Meanwhile, we have more people every year who are paying too much rent and struggling to hold on to their housing.”

If, amid this climate of scarcity, tent cities crop up out of sheer necessity in more and more cities, it’s not unimaginable that more cities may take their cue from those in the Pacific Northwest, which stopped seeing such encampments as a scourge and started wondering how they might be upgraded to something safer, cleaner, semipermanent — and even pleasant.

Quixote Village Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

It’s hard not to be charmed by Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington, or the story behind it. In 2007, when police broke up a homeless camp in a parking lot in funky downtown Olympia — the state’s capital, famous for being, among other things, the onetime home of Kurt Cobain — faith leaders in this progressive college town banded together to allow the residents to camp out in various church parking lots for three to six months at a time.

Eventually, the leaders formed a nonprofit custody group for the residents called Panza, which, over time, successfully lobbied the city, county, and state governments to not only lease to the residents (at $1 yearly for 41 years) a 2.2-acre plot of land in an industrial zone about a 10-minute drive from downtown, but to pony up more than $2.3 million to build a professionally designed village with thirty 144-square-foot cottages and a community building with a “shared kitchen, dining area, living room, showers, laundry, and office and meeting space.”

Jill Severn Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

Another $215,000 came from community groups and individuals moved by the story of the ever-roaming village, named, of course, for the peripatetic fictional Don Quixote. (Panza is named after his faithful servant). As money was raised, “hundreds of middle-class people got to know people who were homeless, which was transformative,” said Jill Severn, a cheerful former political speechwriter and Panza board member. Severn has become a regular volunteer presence at Quixote, sitting in on all sorts of meetings and occasionally whipping up a Saturday breakfast for the residents.

The first residents of Quixote, long used to sleeping in tents, moved into their new cottages, complete with heat, toilets, sinks, and electricity, on Dec. 24, 2013. “It was a little strange not knowing anyone, but I must have flushed my toilet about 10 times,” said a 60-year-old resident who goes by the name Stormie Knight, who moved in after a stint camping in the woods to escape both an abusive husband and a history of crack use. “I thought I’d be an embarrassment to my daughter if I died in the forest.”

The afternoon before Halloween during my visit, she spent time in the common room helping other residents prepare to hang up crepe-paper black spiders and orange jack-o’-lanterns, decorations for a party that night that would include a horror movie marathon. She said that she occasionally missed the DIY rigors of camping life, not to mention living amid nature. “I sleep with my windows open here,” she said. “But I like the camaraderie. And I don’t miss the hardship or the lack of safety or the stigma of being homeless.”

Frankly speaking, Quixote Village is a delight to middle-class eyes. It is well-designed and clean and as cute as can be. The earth-tone, board-and-batten identical cottages sit all in a row, each with its own tiny front porch and front yard, where some residents have planted bushes and flowers. Curving paved pathways link everything together. The three retention ponds that sit between the two rows of cottages — a necessary evil because the area’s water table is so shallow — have even attracted a few ducks.

Quixote Village Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

It’s easy to forget the industrial drabness, including a trucking company, that lies beyond the village’s gates. The building that houses the shared facilities has a modern-rustic wood façade and is bright, airy, and clean, with comfy new sofas and lamp fixtures and a spacious, well-equipped kitchen. And given that the cost of a traditional studio in the area is around $200,000, Quixote’s cottages were a bargain at $19,000 each — or $88,000 each if you factor in the cost of site preparation and the common building.

But compared to Dignity and Opportunity Villages, Quixote also feels a bit institutional, as if it’s run by a nonprofit — which it is. It has two paid staffers and its own van to take residents to and from town, and though residents play an advisory role in who gets in or is kicked out, Panza has the final say. The village urine-tests residents suspected of not complying with a ban on alcohol use, which residents voted to instate only recently. (Drug use had been banned from the get-go.)

Prior to that, “All our troubles here were alcohol-based,” said resident Byron Thorpe, 55, who said he had kicked meth since moving in. “This place has been a blessing,” he said. “It got me clean.” (The village has a support group for residents with mental health or substance histories.) Pot, however, is allowed at Quixote. Now legal in Washington state, it’s often bought by residents at the nearby 420 Carpenter, the county’s first legal weed store.

Eric Estabrooks Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

That same pre-Halloween afternoon, Eric Estabrooks, a scruffy blond 29-year-old resident in a ball cap and hoodie, showed off the cottage where he kept a small playpen and loads of kids’ DVDs for his little daughter and son, who stayed with him frequently. (Overnight guests are allowed up to three nights a month and after they pass a background check, which is waived for children.) Estabrooks was sleeping in the doorway of an Olympia church until he found his way to Quixote.

“You like my pumpkins?” he asked, proudly pointing out the pumpkin patch he’d cultivated with his bit of front yard.

Estabrooks puts 30% of whatever monthly income he gets from odd jobs and public benefits toward the village, as do the other residents. All Quixotians are free to stay as long as they want, but must declare goals they are working toward, whether they involve education and career or simply seeking steady care for their physical and mental health.

In the common room, Stormie Knight worked alongside Theresa Bitner, 26, and Brie Wellman, 21, two cheerful young women who’ve been a couple since their high school days and found themselves occasionally homeless due to both familial poverty and familial tensions.

Bitner now has a job as a line chef at a senior living facility; in their downtime, the young women, who are one of two couples at Quixote, love to cuddle with their cats. Prior to Quixote, they lived for a stint, as did almost half the residents, at Olympia’s Salvation Army shelter, which everyone simply calls “Sally.” It wasn’t easy.

“You can be by yourself here,” said Bitner. “And you can take a shower whenever you want.” (The common building is open 24/7.)

Later that afternoon, Severn hosted a visit from Jill Detwiler, a staffer in the office of the mayor of Portland, Oregon, which is scouting sites to build homeless villages like Quixote. Detwiler commented on how far Quixote felt from downtown Olympia. (That concern had previously been voiced to me by Karen Chapple, a UC Berkeley urban planning professor — who, as it happens, rents out a tiny home in the backyard of her real home. “Is it so inaccessible that residents will never be able to get back into the mainstream economy?” she asked. “You’re perpetuating the isolation of the homeless by keeping them on these sites, [though they’re] low cost and more viable.”)

Addressing Detwiler, Severn noted that getting from Quixote to downtown Olympia was a doable bike or bus ride, plus the village’s van made daily trips.

“Besides,” she added, “how much longer could people go on living in tents?”

Opportunity Village Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

About 225 miles south, Opportunity Village, in an outlying industrial zone of Eugene, presents a very different picture from Quixote. Its 29 tiny homes, though built on a prefab model like Quixote’s, are roughly half the size (8-by-8) and have been far more customized, inside and out, by residents, giving this residential cluster a colorful, ramshackle, more hippie-ish feel, enhanced by the ragtag raised-box garden plots and the piles of old bikes and scrap materials residents tend to hoard outside their cottages.

An Opportunity resident adjusts some exterior decor on her home. Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

The drizzly, chilly day that I visited, some of the 35 residents were in the communal yurt (heated by a woodstove), tapping away at laptops, holding small organizational meetings, or watching TV, while others built interior or exterior additions to their cottages. Yet others came and went, off to downtown Eugene to work day or odd jobs, access social services, or buy groceries.

Heben, the young urban planner and tiny-home evangelist who lives nearby, showed me around, explaining that Opportunity — which grew out of an Occupy camp, with the support of Eugene’s mayor — was built with $100,000 in donated funds plus roughly another $100,000 worth of donated material. Cottages cost a max of $2,000 apiece to build. Residents chip in $30 a month for the shared utilities.

Life at Opportunity does not feel as tidy as at Quixote. With no proper indoor kitchen, residents cook on grills or with a variety of toaster ovens in an outdoor area. The cottages are not heated, and on really cold nights, everyone sleeps in the yurt.

“There’s lots of sickness and colds,” said Tom, who looked a bit like an older Matthew McConaughey with his blue eyes and long blond hair under a Hard Rock Cafe cap. A former Ohio trucker who lost work during the recession, he now collects cans around town so he can make up to $20 a day in refunds. He likes to buy steak with his food stamps.

When I asked him the best thing about life at Opportunity, he said, “There’s no best thing.” Then he softened. “It’s better than the Mission,” he said, referring to the main (Christian) Eugene shelter from which half of Opportunity’s residents came. Like most shelters nationally, the Mission demands that everyone leave in the afternoon and check back in in the early evening.

Opportunity’s communal yurt Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

“You can come and go as you please here,” said Tom. “And it’s way better to have my own space,” he added, pointing to his cottage, painted a dark green. “Also, we have a real address here. If you put down on applications that you’re at the Mission, people won’t hire you.” He said he was looking forward to the village Halloween party in the yurt, which would also serve as a one-year anniversary party for one of the resident couples, who met at the village.

Opportunity’s community rules Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

Unlike Quixote Village, Opportunity doesn’t require that residents be clean and sober, but it doesn’t allow drinking or using on or near the premises and insists that anyone coming back to the village drunk or high go directly to their cottage. Ed, 52, who wore a skull-print bandana and puffed on a cigarette with a hand missing the top of a thumb — he lost that in a 1992 carpentry accident — admitted he found the no-using ban annoying, as he occasionally liked to consume mind-altering substances.

But since leaving the Mission, he’s proudly earned up to $2,000 a month working for Backyard Bungalows, the small company that helped build Opportunity’s cottages, and said he wanted to get his own place at Emerald Village.

Again and again at Opportunity and elsewhere, I was reminded just how quickly people without means could fall into homelessness. Inside the village’s front-gate welcoming cottage, where all residents must volunteer weekly hours, Rhonda, a recovering heroin addict in glasses and a hoodie with a sweetly embarrassed demeanor, told me how she and her husband Juan lost their housing when the elderly man they worked for as live-in caretakers died.

Front desk at Opportunity Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

“We pitched a tent by the river and lived there on and off for two years, sleeping on people’s couches or floors sometimes, or in motels when we could afford it,” she said. She called the past year at Opportunity, which she’d read about in the paper and then rushed to apply to, “wonderful, just being off the street.”

The best part of Opportunity was the friends they’d made, she said. The worst? “No electricity in the cottages. We have a rechargeable lantern and a portable DVD player.”

Just outside the welcoming tent, skull-bandana’d Ed sat on white plastic chairs with a woman who asked that I call her Ann, cuddling with her little white terrier, Kaczynski (named after Ted, the Unabomber). She and her husband, who both have severe arthritis, had sold their car in Oklahoma to raise money to move to Oregon, which has better health benefits.

Ann’s story underscored the plight of Americans without independent income who, because of physical or mental illness, struggle to hold down a job. “I’d babysit or do office work,” she said, “but I’d always be fired for crying at work.” She’d not left her cottage that day until 1:30 p.m. (Her husband was off doing janitorial work.)

Living at Opportunity, at least, was giving her a base from which to figure out the rest of her life. (She’d briefly lived in Oklahoma with family, but “that didn’t work out so well” — a common story among homeless people.) “Should I get a job now or start classes at community college?” she mused aloud. “These days, where is college going to get us?” But she was equally ambivalent about taking minimum-wage work. “I don’t wanna do a shit job,” she said. “It makes my pain so bad.”

Interior of an Opportunity cottage Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

She was quiet, petting Kaczynski. “I’d rather make art and have it take off,” she finally said. She’d made some decorative tiles for the backsplash of the sink in the yurt, and was looking to sell more of them at a local holiday fair. “Maybe I could be known in places I’ve never been to.”

For the meantime, she had a safe home. That, Mayor Piercy told me, was a key benefit of Opportunity. “I’ve talked to women there,” she said, “and they expressed that they now felt safe whereas before they hadn’t, which is exactly how Opportunity was meant to function.” Residents at the village take turns manning the front gate to track everyone’s comings and goings. The police would be called if a major problem erupted. “But there have been no law enforcement issues there,” said the mayor, “which is why we just renewed their contract for another year.”

That’s not to say that Opportunity hasn’t seen its share of troublemakers. Eleven people had been kicked out for bad behavior, Heben told me, including one the very first night the village opened. “At first there was a two-week probationary period imposed [after someone misbehaved],” he told me. “But we got rid of it.”

Mitch Grubic Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

Back at Dignity Village in Portland, Mitch Grubic told me how Opportunity actually took a lesson from Dignity in what not to do — specifically in allowing the creation of an outside board to oversee the village and provide a final say on key decisions, such as who stays and who goes. Dignity elects resident leaders year to year, with no permanent leadership.

“Our attempt here at self-government has not worked,” he said. Other residents echoed this, saying that resentment routinely built up toward villagers with elected titles who held all the decision-making power in the community for periods of at least a year. “You need a village where everyone looks at each other as a peer, not as rulers,” Grubic said. “And you need outside oversight. It’s hard to make a decision on someone you consider family whom you live with.”

Plus, he said, Dignity’s lack of an outside nonprofit board had kept the community from doing more robust fundraising. “We’ve lost momentum here and we could bring in all kinds of money if we went with a board model.”

But ultimately, he said, he agreed with Heben that a self-built village was a better model than one in which the government paid professionals to build to traditional code. He asked of Quixote, “Did the developer walk away with a profit?” (Quixote’s architect took half his usual fee, and the developer, the nonprofit Community Frameworks, was paid “a fraction of the cost of construction, which is a standard way to pay a developer,” Severn said.)

Map of Dignity Village Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

Whichever governing model becomes the more prevalent one, it appears that the tiny-home village as part of a solution to homelessness — and, more broadly, the dire need for more affordable housing — is likely to grow in the years ahead, particularly in areas whose realty markets, zoning flexibility, and political temperament allow for it. “We’ve demonstrated that this model is feasible,” said Ginger Segel, Community Frameworks’ senior housing developer, who was visiting Quixote the same day as me to discuss building more such villages in the area. “This is permanent housing,” she said. “Not a tent city. And other communities will replicate this.”

That is not to say that such projects won’t meet opposition and bias, even in the fairly progressive Pacific Northwest, as the ones thus far have along the way to gaining city approval. (In fact, the villages might never have happened at all if they hadn’t ultimately been located far afield of any residential zones. One of Quixote’s neighbors, a trucking company, initially voiced opposition to the site; now, said Severn, the company brings the village large food donations.) One look at the comments in a 2013 story on Dignity Village makes clear that local sentiment isn’t all entirely welcome.

“If Portland and the state of Oregon wasn’t a haven for homeless, illegals and entitlement lovers,” read one of many such posts, “these same freeloaders would move to warmer climates and with any luck let Portland be something other than a joke to the rest of the country. ‘Give us your lazy, your freeloaders, your drug addicts, your prostitutes, and your corrupt public officials’ should be on all the signs welcoming people to Oregon.”

And to be truthful, not everyone living in these tiny-home villages — individuals whose lives have often been scarred by mental illness, severe disability, trauma, addiction, and old age — seems as though they’re on a straight path to mainstream employment, housing, and middle-class American stability. To varying degrees, the villages aim to help residents connect to services for health, employment, and future housing — Quixote, for example, has a full-time social worker who is starting an in-house program to deal with chemical dependency — but both Heben and Severn admitted that, with lack of alternatives, some folks at Opportunity and Quixote might be there for the rest of their lives. Yet as middle-class stability increasingly becomes less reachable, or regainable, for a large percentage of the American population, tiny villages are modeling a solution that falls somewhere between the three-bedroom, two-car-garage status quo and the streets.

Or, as Rhonda back at Opportunity Village put it: “I know there’s something better out there. But at least for now, I have a place to call home.”

Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

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Theresa Bitner is 26. A previous version of this story misstated her age.

























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