In the fall of 2015, the city of Portland, Oregon, declared a state of emergency on housing due to the high number of homeless individuals living on the streets.
The lack of affordable housing and the city's overburdened shelters led to a range of possible ways to combat the problem—but it was inspiration from the houseless community themselves ("houseless" is a preferred term within the community) that led to the start of an innovative solution.
In the spring of 2016, a group called the Village Coalition—made up of advocates, activists, and houseless individuals—joined forces with several student fellows and faculty Sergio Palleroni and Todd Ferry from the Center for Public Interest Design (CPID), a research and action center within the Portland State University's School of Architecture. Working together, they created the POD Initiative (Partners On Dwelling) to address houselessness in the city. They observed that the houseless community had been establishing their own informal "villages" around the city. As a result, the group reached out to the greater architecture community, asking them to apply their skills to design cost-effective, efficient, and attractive homes for the project.
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In October 2016, members of the Portland architecture community sat down with representatives from the houseless community to figure out how design could play a role. Using an existing houseless village called Hazelnut Grove as a case study, the architects came up with an efficient plan for communal villages with shared facilities and individual sleeping PODs. The structures are referred to as PODs to ease the code requirements and increase the speed with which the project can be completed. They decided on a maximum size of 8 feet by 12 feet—just under 100-square-feet—so that the sleeping PODS can be easily lifted by a forklift and transported on the back of a truck. Fourteen architecture teams were formed, and each would submit a POD design.
The city of Portland was impressed enough to invest in the project, giving $2,000 for each POD to be constructed. Ferry explained, "What this process has done is change policy in the city. When the mayor's office gave money to the PODs, it was a small amount, but it was a huge step. The city was investing in it. We have a great architecture community here and the architects used their profession as activists to push the city to do something."
By December 9, 2016, the PODs had already been built and were put on display downtown for the city to see. This was an important step to get people accustomed to the concept of accepting a houseless village into their own community one day.
North Portland's Kenton neighborhood was identified as a potential site for the pilot project, so the POD Initiative began to work with the Kenton community to familiarize them with the concept. In March 2017, the neighbors voted in favor of placing the village in their neighborhood. By June 10, 2017, 14 women moved into the 14 architect-designed PODs at the Kenton Women's Village.
Due to the success of this project, the next one—a village specifically for veterans—is already underway in the neighboring Clackamas County. This village will take the concept one step further, with the inclusion of a supervised workshop that will enable the veterans to learn skills to construct their own PODs. For the materials, recycled pieces from a dismantled stage from the 2017 Pickathon music festival, which was designed by students and faculty at the PSU School of Architecture, will be used to construct the initial 15 PODs.
Although it's just a start, it's a good one. In less than a year, one successful village has been built and another one is underway, with more sites being identified as POD Initiative continues to strive to improve and expand its model. "We want to learn from what works and make it better. That's design," explained Ferry.
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