Portland is home to Dignity Village, one of the first and oldest homeless pod villages. More of these communities have been established around Portland and other cities in recent years as one of many ways to meet the needs of people living on the streets. A new report from Portland State University has found that a majority of people living in these small towns are satisfied, and neighbors who live next to these communities become less concerned over time.
OPB’s Tiffany Camhi recently spoke with Todd Ferry, the report’s senior writer and researcher. He is also a senior research associate and faculty member at Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design and co-founder of the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative.
camhi: Your team interviewed residents and neighbors of six different villages in Portland. They are all a little different. But can you give us an idea of what a pod village looks like and how it works?
Ferry: There are three key factors. The first is that there are individual non-collective units, often referred to as pods, for individual dorms with a shared communal facility that includes kitchens, bathrooms, and gathering spaces. Another element is that there are community agreements and shared behavior and goals. And then a third element is that there is an agency among the villagers on the social and physical fabric of the village. That’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about villages. And within those six villages, there’s a range in terms of having a village run by a non-profit organization versus one that’s fully self-sustaining.
camhi: Thus, one of the main conclusions of your study is that it is useful for the villagers to have a certain freedom of action in decision-making. What kind of advice would you give to a town considering a pod village?
Ferry: I think it’s clear that we need to go beyond just the physical components and the architectural look of a village, and really think about the social infrastructure and its impacts. So, although autonomy is not possible in all cases, thinking about how to create an agency can have a considerable impact. The Clackamas County Veterans Village, for example, is a managed village, but they have a community council where villagers are elected by other villagers and have a say in certain aspects of the village. I think the more agency we can offer villagers the better, that’s what we find.
camhi: Your research has also revealed that residents of neighborhoods near these villages are often suspicious of them even before they arrive and become less concerned over time. What do you remember the most about talking to the neighbors who live around these villages?
Ferry: Often when a village is planned in the neighborhood there is a reaction from the neighbors and sometimes the minority with the loudest voices takes up a lot of space and energy. But ultimately the fears that promote this kind of energy are unfounded. And, in the end, we often found people who had gone from being really against the villages to being some of their biggest advocates. And so, while it’s important to start thinking about neighborhood impact and building those relationships to have a positive experience for villagers, we shouldn’t pay so much attention to what neighbors think about it. .
camhi: The report found that the demographics of people using Portland’s tiny pod villages are predominantly white and predominantly male. This is despite the fact that Black, Indigenous and other people of color make up 40% of Portland’s homeless population. How do you explain that ? And how can the people of BIPOC be better served by this small village model?
Ferry: There’s a series of factors that I think lead to villages being largely white and male and what we’re seeing is that we can change that with certain ways that villages are set up during the phase design and development and how they are managed. So some of the recommendations we have in our report include: supporting various leaders in the villages. If people experiencing homelessness begin to want to start a village themselves and especially if they are people of color, supporting this can lead to more diverse villages. Additionally, people of color serving as village support staff have a significant impact. We saw with one village that when part of the leadership was led by a person of color, it greatly increased the number of villagers of color. And changing admissions protocols to include that racism is a big factor in a person’s vulnerability to homelessness and somehow acknowledging that people of color disproportionately experience homelessness is another way to ensure that these are fairer.
camhi: Was there anything about this study that surprised you?
Ferry: There are a lot of things that surprised me. I come from the field of architecture and so thinking about how we can better design villages from a built environment perspective was particularly interesting. Finding that there wasn’t as much impact on whether the pods all look the same or whether they all look different didn’t matter as much, for example, as just being able to have the flexibility inside the pod and that there were often physical things like how close the pods were that didn’t make as much of a difference if there was a more organic layout than if they were farther apart, but more spaced in a grid. The perception that the neighbors were closer had a big difference based simply on the layout rather than the actual dimensions. There was an aversion to the more boxy pods even though it increased the square footage as a lot of people who live in villages may have had a negative experience with institutions in the past which could trigger to have more a boxy pod. And so sacrificing some of that square footage for a shape that might offer more versatility and not feel boxed in.