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.
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.