Letter 5

On Independence Day, I did not eat barbecue, go out on a body of water, or hang out with family. On Independence Day, I was in Hazelnut Grove, a tiny-home village nestled between N Greely Avenue and N Interstate Avenue and a short distance from the merge of I-5 and I-405. It was originally founded by members of the Occupy Portlandmovement as an illegal homeless encampment, much like the ones scattered beside major urban roads in the Pacific Northwest. However, this encampment was not forcefully dissolved by the city like other encampments. Instead, the city formally recognized Hazelnut Grove and gave them a fence, port-a-potties, a shower, city garbage and recycle pickup, and access to water among other things. From there, the residents have had the freedom to construct, organize, and manage the village as they see fit.

Google Earth over Grove Park

There are around 15 residents and a family of 4 big, black Labradors. They now have an outdoor kitchen after tearing down the rodent-ridden food pantry and kitchen structures that were originally built. The outdoor kitchen is comprised mainly of a canopy, pots, utensils, a firepit, and a propane grill. The flies are everywhere. There is an empty sardine can, among other bits of trash, laying on the dirt ground. Empty water jugs are scattered around a shopping cart. The shopping cart also has one 117 ounce can of baked beans and a 3 foot hose. The can of beans is used to hold down the sink’s handle in the public restroom at Overlook Park. This is where the city says they can get water. It is a 7-minute walk to the park, uphill. The houses are the smallest I have seen yet, but many have either propane or solar panels for heating. The resident that is showing me around tells me that he thinks his house has an issue with mold and mildew, so he keeps the window open at all times. There is a library with ornate French doors, a wooden rocking chair, and hundreds of books. I am told that they often let non-residents temporarily sleep in the library. Two residents that are married to each other and original to the village have cars, though other cars and vans that look retired rest on the property. For those without a ride, public transportation is as close by as N Interstate Avenue.

Hazelnut Grove’s most striking feature is the view. Once you look past the rail yard, you can see the Willamette River and Northwest and Downtown Portland. The residents happily call it the “million-dollar view.” To me, this view feels out of place; I would not anticipate having this nice of a view at a transitioning homeless village. But should a view be limited to people with a certain net worth? No.

The atmosphere at Hazelnut Grove is very relaxed. In the words of one resident, they are like a “hippy commune.” All of the residents were nice to me and would smile. Everyone seems to get along. Being self-governed, the residents get together weekly or bi-weekly to assign tasks and cover village business. Every resident is on rotation to work security, making sure the village is not trespassed. There is also a “poop scoop” rotation to take care of the dogs.

Some of the founders of Hazelnut Grove have moved on to their own houses, a sign that this village worked. Soon, the village will be moving to a church that has agreed to sponsor them. It is unclear what will happen to the current location. The neighborhood association for the Overlook neighborhood that sits above Hazelnut Grove will likely prefer the location to stay vacant. In the most recent newsletter from the neighborhood association, the president referred to Hazelnut Grove as an illegal homeless encampment, even though they are not. There is animosity. NIMBYism abounds.

Hazelnut Grove has now formed its own non-profit so they could receive tax-deductible donations. Many volunteers have come and built the village into what it is today. Previous residents have moved on to permanent housing, a sign that the village’s model must work to a degree.

Yet again, I am struck by how human all of the residents are. They are normal folks that just don’t have a home. The resident who gave me a tour had a phone, social media, and a full-time job. He had been to graduate school. He was clean-shaven and wore clean clothes. He picks his daughter up from school and takes her to ballet lessons during the school year. His daughter lives with her mother, but even when he doesn’t see her, they text and call. If it weren’t for the cost of child-support, he believes he could afford a place to stay. After staying on his friends’ couches and patios, he eventually came to Hazelnut Grove. At Hazelnut Grove, he has privacy. He can come and go as he wants. In my own travels, I often to do not want to overstay my welcome with anyone who has let me in. I never want to be a burden.

On the weekend, I visited Seaside, Oregon. At Seaside beach, you can find families, restaurants, tourism, and homelessness. There is a steep fine for using a tent on the beach, but it looked like many homeless people were sleeping nestled up against the dunes. Bikes with carts of possessions in tow were plentiful. This particular beach had public restrooms and showers for washing off sand. I did not see anyone doing this, but I would completely utilize those showers if I was homeless. The reminders of homelessness are inescapable.

Letter 4

Suddenly I am in Washington. I left Austin, Texas after spending three weeks there. The drive across West Texas is horrible , regardless of what route you take. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone because of how desolate it is (I am being only slightly dramatic here). I was excited when I left Austin, but the loneliness of West Texas really took it out of me. I was leaving new-found friends in Austin. I was leaving a community that had opened its arms to me. I was leaving familiarity for more of the unknown. It was uncomfortable. I ended up driving through El Paso and Las Cruces to a small unincorporated community in southeast Arizona called Bowie. I arrived so late at night, I didn’t even get out of my car to set up camp, I just slept in my front seat out of slight fear of whatever could be in the dark Arizona desert and because I was truly tired. I had actually tried setting up camp at a spot in New Mexico earlier, but it did not look promising. As I left the spot and headed towards I-10 and Bowie, I was pulled over by Border Patrol. A less than welcoming experience, this was how my first day back on the road went.

Lucas in Weldon, CA

Not knowing where I am going to stay each night or what I am going to eat can be unnerving. I also don’t want to be too far into the wilderness that I cannot have cell signal and keep in contact with my family, yet I refuse to stay in an urban space given that my car is visibly full of stuff. Security, seclusion, and cell signal have been the key points to where I stay each night.

I did not see a single hitchhiker until I reached California. For some reason, I want to believe that they are all hitchhiking as part of a grand adventure rather than as their only means of automotive travel. I’m stuck in this position between wanting to give them a ride and knowing that I have been raised to never give a hitchhiker a ride. I have no basis for this judgement; I’ve never personally interacted with hitchhikers. Am I fearful of them? Or of their desperation? Alas, my lone passenger seat is full of gear as I continue by the upright thumb (I overpacked).

Making my way through San Francisco and Northern California, I end up in Eugene, Oregon. A college town, it is quite nice. However, there are obvious signs of homelessness. For the first time on this trip, I see a tent pitched on the sidewalk. I see many vans, buses, and small RVs with the windows covered in sheets parked on streets, possibly as others live out of their vehicles.

I visited Emerald Village in Eugene. Around 20 homes, all studio style with their own bath and kitchen. Between 160-300 square feet, each is a comfortable size and distinguishable with their own individual architecture. Vibrant, well kept, and dog-friendly, it is a nice little village put together on a small parcel of land. I spoke to a staff member of the overarching non-profit, SquareOne Villages. From my understanding, SquareOne is about setting up these villages, offering the initial nurturing, and then letting them be sustained by the residents. They are not intentional communities, in heavy contrast to Community First! Village in Austin. For SquareOne, this is a business, not a mission. Essentially, SquareOne Villages buys the land, builds the homes, and then has residents buy into a co-operative where they will eventually own the homes and manage the village themselves with limited intervention from SquareOne. SquareOne Villages is more of a developer than a community builder. Efforts are focused on providing reasonable housing that caters to the financial situation of their residents. Emerald Village is young – some homes are not yet complete – but I felt that the residents that were living there seemed to be happy and comfortable. With due time, I expect the community dynamics will become clearer. Intentional community or not, SquareOne Villages is providing affordable housing where the need is great.

While staying in Oregon, I encountered difficulties finding a place to stay each night. It turns out that Oregonians are active and enjoy camping. I’ve driven circles around this state from I-5 to the coast and back down highway 101. The experience of driving a combined 4 hours one evening as I hopped from one full site to the next full site to one that was empty was interesting. You begin to wonder if there will be a place for you to stay; you just want help and a spot to park your car for a night.

Somewhat unrelated – but this is a blog with my name attached and I feel a certain liberty to share my opinion – the Pacific Ocean is ridiculously cold. When I camped along the coast (because the number of campsites along the Oregon coast quadruples the number I could find along I-5) I was cold the entire time. I much rather have the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe I am just missing home. I don’t think I have ever spent this long on the west side of the Mississippi River. I am also constantly surprised by the longevity of the daylight. Sunrise at 5:30 am and dark after 9pm. Speaking of changes, the gas prices have been ridiculous since I left Texas. An Alabama native, I’m used to seeing gas prices well south of $3, oftentimes closer to $2. I’d be lucky to find a spot up here where I can get gas for less than $3, even if I pay in cash. And Oregon, why can I not pump my own gas???

I am definitely not anywhere I have been before. As I write, I am in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. I am taking advantage of Starbucks and public libraries again, given their free Wi-Fi. I am officially halfway through this project. I will admit, the lonesome travel from Texas to the Northwest was slightly dismaying, but I am rejuvenated and excited to see what Portland and Seattle have to offer.

Expectedly uncomfortable.


Letter 3

It was another good week at Community First! Village as I was able to speak to more missionaries and spend meals with community members. I was able to have dinner in a missionary family’s home at the Village while I heard their story of becoming the first residents at Community First! Village several years ago. I also was able to attend a community dinner where everyone was invited to partake in a meal catered by a local church. I had gotten food and headed to meet another missionary. The missionary had just gotten off of work and was talking to some of the residents when he asked me a favor. One of the residents had threatened to pull a knife on some of the other residents if they did not give him any food. The missionary asked me to go to the community dinner to get the resident and his dog a plate of food. I obliged and returned with a full plate of burritos, tacos, spaghetti, rice, beans, and soup. The resident was in a much better mood and thanked me. Five minutes later I was back where I had given the resident the food and it was all on the ground; the resident was not around. Some of the residents he had threatened were talking about how ungrateful he was, the missionary just apologized for the resident’s actions and cleaned up the discarded food. Many of the missionaries talk about how they have to set limits on how much of themselves they give to the residents. I can easily see how deflating it could be to give a resident everything they ask for to see them waste or disregard what was given with ease. Some of the missionaries have told me they have strict limits, such as not giving rides to residents, or not going out of the way to do favors when family is visiting. Because of how taxing the missionary experience has been, they have initiated a new Missionary care program to make sure that the missionary experience is sustainable and not a constant cycle of give, give, give.

The Community Grille

Regardless, the events were soon forgotten as we all celebrated one of the resident’s birthdays. The celebration and food had all been coordinated by the resident’s neighbors. It was remarkable to see true community with neighbors truly looking out for each other.

Issues appear to roll like water off the shoulders of this community; there is an atmosphere of forgiveness. They do not expect the worse of anyone, though they are prepared for it. They see the best in everyone.

The village offers many things for its residents, not expecting too much in return. A missionary here mentioned that there is a consumer culture that the homeless are led into. They are always on the receiving end of services. They are given food at the food pantry. They are given a place to stay at homeless shelters. They are given clothes, showers, and spare change. I do not think that this style of consumption leads to a full recovery unless it also comes with eventual contribution. The value of earning the “it” is transformative. I feel like that has been one of the largest successes of Community First! Village. They enable their residents to contribute. This starts by having each resident pay rent. Some can pay this with their social security, veterans, and/or disability benefits, but for the majority of residents, they work various jobs at some of the many micro-enterprises at the village. In this way, they earn a dignified income that allows them to pay their rent, buy their own food and clothes, and provide for themselves. This seems integral to the transition from homeless to formerly homeless. There must be a certain transition from complete consumption to some self-sufficiency. Or perhaps it is less about self-sufficiency and more about having some sort of investment in the community, something that they have given along the line. Community First! Village has their potential residents volunteer at the village as part of their application process.

How does this transition from consumption to self-sufficiency really occur, especially for those without a place like Community First! Village? If I see someone who appears to be homeless, my immediate thoughts are probably more about what they want/need/may ask for rather than what they could do contribute. Is this thought wrong? I don’t think it is totally correct. Is it safe to assume that someone who appears to have next to nothing would need to receive? Should I change my mindset? At what point, if any, should a homeless individual who has been given what they have needed be expected to sustain themselves? Once homeless individuals can support themselves, should we expect them to do so? I think blindly giving to anyone who needs is the safest response, but conversations of consumption make me hesitant about leading homeless individuals into a cyclic journey of dependence.

That being said, what was described as constant consumption by the missionary might be perceived differently by others. I do not think it is wrong to give, but I do think it is wrong to foster dependency. I would say that ultimately, many homeless-related organizations do not want to help homeless individuals for the rest of eternity, they want to eradicate homelessness in general. Tough stuff.

I move out west this coming week, but Community First! Village has certainly given me something to chew on. I will be back in August for their symposium where they go deep into how the Community First! Village model works.

Letter 2

Already, this first week has been wonderful at my first stop, Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. Community First is so impressive because of the quantity and quality of the services they offer. Spread across 51 acres, they house more than 200 people consisting of around 40 missionaries (that have never been homeless) and 160 formerly homeless residents. They are currently working on expanding to welcome 300 more residents. Residents are allowed to stay as long as they can pay the rent, which varies from $250-500 a month. Besides offering houses, Community First! Village has a health clinic, blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, automotive shop, barber shop, art studio, outdoor movie theatre, bed & breakfast, multiple sanctuaries and prayer rooms, organic garden, livestock, general store, and communal laundry, shower, and bath facilities. What struck my the most about the homes is the personalization that each has. The only visible, uniform design element is that each has a porch for neighbors to socialize on.

Lucas and a tiny home

I was able to interview two of the staff members that are focused on the replication of Community First! Village across the country. I also spent a day with a missionary as we walked his dog and visited every aspect of the community. I went on runs to the food pantry, where a church had fed 9,800 people in the past month, 5 days a week, with no cost to the homeless. I worked in the gardens alongside a resident who had been homeless for years but was excited because he was starting a screen-printed t-shirt enterprise and Dell, the computer-technology company, had contacted him about making hundreds of shirts. I listened to a lady who worked at the Community Inn Bed & Breakfast where she made sure all of the rooms were ready before guests arrived. She spoke so passionately about her pride and the standards to which she holds herself when making sure each room is spotless. I heard many residents talk about their grandkids, children, and family coming to visit them now that they had a home. I saw smiles, heard laughter, and experienced love as I was welcomed into homes for meals, conversations, and understanding.

I had done quite a bit of research on Community First! Village before visiting and had known that they offered quite a bit but seeing it in person was nothing short of awesome. One of the neatest things I saw this week was a House Blessing, where two new residents were welcomed into their new homes. The ceremony consisted of prayers, scriptures, hymns, and gifts (it is a tradition that each new neighbor has a quilt made specifically for them). Then everyone goes and lays their hand on the homes and gives their blessing, welcoming the new resident home. It was moving to see the grace and gratitude that flowed from the event.

Interestingly, most of the village’s residents are not religious, and the village does not ban the use of alcohol or drugs. One missionary told me that the village would not have as many residents if everybody was forced to be clean, that sobriety had to be the choice of the individual. The same can be said of religion. The village will always have the resources available, but the resident will have to make their own choice to use them. The main non-negotiable commitment that each resident has to uphold is their rent.

Throughout the week, I was met with constant surprise of how young I was compared to everyone else at the village. I was called ‘kid’ and ‘baby’ more times than I care to count (though let it be known that I have voted, registered for the draft, and paid taxes!); the average age of the residents was at least twice the age that I am. This youthfulness lead many to believe I was either courageous or stupid to be doing this journey on my own – I’m not sure I’ll know which one until I’m done – but they were still appreciative to see me doing this work.

As far as living out of the car goes, it has had its moments. Pace Bend, a local county park and campground, has been where I set up camp each night. The Texas heat has not been kind to the temperature of an all-black vehicle. The anxiety of having everything I belong in my car while I’m in the city can also be unnerving. However, the convenience of having everything within reaching distance has been phenomenal!

Because Pace Bend does not have Wi-Fi, I have spent many hours at different Austin Public Library branches. Oftentimes, I’m in the company of the homeless who enjoy a bathroom, air conditioning, computers, and books.

Right now, I can tell that I do not feel at home. Thinking about it, it has been a while since I have truly felt settled. Leaving for college, Duke quickly became one of my homes, but sharing a dorm room, living space, and bathrooms never offered the quiet and solitude that I would like to enjoy. Duke certainly has a community atmosphere that is rewarding, but isolation can be needed. I could not truly settle. To me, settling is where I can leave my laptop in the living room and not have to worry about it being stolen, can forget about the laundry and know that it will be in the dryer when I return, or can put my food in the refrigerator without having to aggressively write my name on it. I don’t mind sharing, but I desire the peace that having one’s own space brings. Once the spring semester ended, I was on a trip where I shared a hotel room. Lovely company, but again, not settled. And now I have been off on this summer work. I make camp every night and tear down camp every night. I am not settled and I am certainly not home.

Letter 1

Lucas Car TentingThis summer, I am going to visit tiny-home villages (like the tiny-homes on HGTV) in Austin, Texas; Portland and Eugene, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington. The unique thing about the tiny-homes I am visiting is that they are used as transitional housing for the homeless and permanent housing for the formerly homeless. The increased use of tiny-homes as affordable housing solutions brought these communities to my attention, especially given the very present issues of homelessness that can be seen right outside of Duke’s campus.

I am most interested in how these tiny-home villages for the homeless create a sense of community and belonging. I will interview residents and administrative staff to try to understand this. I will also volunteer at and participate in these communities alongside residents. Throughout this summer, I will not be living in these communities, but I will rather be living out of my car. This will be an experience I anticipate being difficult and relative as many of the people I will speak to have lived out of cars for extended periods of time. By no means will this simulate what it feels like to be homeless, but I believe it will be personally revealing.

I’m looking forward to hearing the unique stories and narratives of interviewees, but I am also excited to see these tiny-home communities because tiny-homes have interested me for several years. With both of my parents being architects, the design challenges that tiny-homes entail is what originally caught my attention.

One thing I am most concerned about is making connections with the residents. Because many of the communities I am studying have been studied before, residents can be tired of participating in research, feel pressured to participate, or, most commonly, experience the fishbowl effect. Many may also have a simple distrust of others from their experiences living on the street. By working with the staff at these villages to meet residents, I feel that I will be able to avoid some of these issues and gain trust, but I truly believe that treating the residents as regular people will bridge the most gaps.

There are many other unknowns about what this summer will entail, but I’m ready to go out and begin!