A Community Grows in a Parking Lot:
Residents of Lot 9 and Erik de Buhr, CSS Chief Operating Officer, on a winter’s day.
“You come in here and you’re going to say, ‘Somebody cares.’”
—Herman Reyes, Lot 9 Safe Spot resident since February 2021
Last February, 18 brand new Huts sat quietly empty in a fenced area on a portion of a graveled parking lot between Autzen Stadium and Alton Baker Park, a site called Lot 9. By the end of the year, most of the Huts were filled with people working to create a community to help them rebuild their lives.
The concept of community is fundamental for Community Supported Shelters. The organization sprung from the community. A single prototype Hut sparked visions of a new approach to addressing homelessness among political leaders, activists, and many other folks throughout Eugene and Springfield. Government agencies, donors of all income levels, and eager volunteers spurred CSS from a literal mom-and-pop nonprofit to a central player in the region’s efforts to deal with the continuing crisis of people living without homes.
As the organization grew from placing single Huts by churches or businesses to managing 13 camps with three to eighteen Huts each, community became the central element of its strategy in serving the people living in those Huts.
“[CSS] just wants to make sure people work together for their own goals and to make sure they’re not interrupting other goals for other people,” says Michelle McLeod, who has lived at Lot 9 with her boyfriend Isidro Andres (Andy) Tajona-Perez since March 2021. Michelle,a recovering addict, and Andy had been living on the streets near the Jefferson Skate Park. “I think the way [CSS is] doing it is really important, making sure there’s peer support and counseling and help with getting resources. But just the community itself is really important: the meetings once a week, the work parties. We get to know each other and work together on the same goal. They’re not just throwing people in here together.”
Common definitions of community include such attributes as safety, trust, belonging, communication, caring for others, working toward a shared goal, and a sense of influence over the nature of the group. It is almost the exact opposite of what most people experience in homelessness, particularly on the streets, where life is marked by danger, fear, uncertainty, and a constant struggle for individual survival.
The development of community begins in the screening process, during which Peer Support Workers conduct lengthy interviews with potential Safe Spot residents and explain the basics of the CSS program and camp culture. “I let them know that honesty is the best policy,” says MJ Hambrick, a Peer Support Worker who works with Lot 9 as well as two other Safe Spots and a Microsite. “Them being honest with us with what’s going on with them doesn’t keep them from getting a Hut, but helps us provide services that they need to make better choices.” Almost all people who are interviewed are accepted into the program. Notes from those interviews go to Camp Facilitators who decide which camp to place people in.
Safety is usually the first thing camp residents mention when asked about the biggest difference living in a Hut in a CSS camp makes in their lives. Huts have front doors with locks and the camps are fenced with locked gates. “I feel safe,” Herman says. “I don’t have to worry about things being stolen and I don’t have to worry about the other people.” Michelle and Andy even leave their Hut unlocked most of the time.
That sense of security is an absolutely necessary prerequisite to developing the more complicated elements of community such as trust, a sense of belonging, and communication.
But, those social aspects are always a challenge, MJ says, “when you put 18 strangers into Huts and they try to live together. Look at how things happen when you live with people you love,” she says.
In the early days of Lot 9, some suspicions of drug use created a “toxic environment,” according to John Putzier, who was among the first to move to the camp. CSS rules prohibit drug use or intoxicated behavior in the camp. “I sat down in my very first meeting,” says MJ, also a recovering addict, “and watched three people nod out.”
“We’d found some paraphernalia inside the fencing near our Hut,” Michelle says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, no.’ And so I did a report, because I realized I have to think about my sobriety first.We tried to deal with it as an entire community,” John says. “We gave that a chance, but that didn’t really work. So then it became an issue where our peer support people tried to deal with it on an individual basis.”
Eventually, MJ says, “Some people were asked to leave. Some people got help. And we moved somebody out of there into another camp. That’s like three different ways of making a change.”
“I think going through those things helped bring us closer together,” John says.
Even so, MJ says, “It always feels like something is brewing at all times over there.”
MJ acknowledges the challenges of building a community with an eclectic group of individuals coming from a wide variety of challenging circumstances. But that’s exactly what CSS is designed to do. “It’s just part of the program,” she says, “making things work as smoothly as we can.”
Peer Support Workers like MJ play a critical role in connecting residents to the CSS program. MJ, who was homeless for five years, says campers talked more freely to her “as soon as I started opening up and talking about my recovery and what I’ve been through.” That helped her develop emotional bonds that formed a basis for trust, she says. “And trusting somebody you’re talking to is super important.”
CSS staff members stress the importance of communications: through the weekly meetings, talking with Peer Support Workers, and developing the willingness to bring up problems before they get too big, including filling out “incident reports” when issues arise.
“People come from the streets, and that culture is not telling on one another,” MJ says. At every meeting, the facilitator encourages the campers to discuss “What’s burning for you? What’s happening?” But often, she says, people won’t bring up what might seem like a minor issue. “Then somebody gets a finger pointed at them” and others respond and it turns out to be a bigger problem.
That tendency convinced MJ of the importance of incident reports, which can be filed by any camper or CSS staff member. “If we don’t know something is happening, how can we fix it?” she says. Some residents are still reluctant to file reports, but “it has gotten better,” she says.
“Sometimes people are afraid to say something,” Michelle says “So an incident report is an easier way for them to have a facilitated conversation.”
John acknowledges a past situation in which a complaint against him for having too many guests at his Hut led him to apologize at a meeting and to stop stretching the rules. He says he was proud of his Hut, the first place he’d considered home for a long time, and improvements he had made to it. “I wanted to show that off. The more I would do that, the more lax I would get about it. I just needed to be reminded of ‘Hey, we have rules in place for a reason.’”
Other issues that have come up have to do with people making noise, disturbing people who work late or have to get up early; people outside the camp creating problems, even a few incidents of people climbing the fence; and the seemingly inevitable issues when people live together about food and cleaning in the common kitchen.
The noise issue was important to Michelle who sometimes worked past midnight at a convenience store, so she went directly to the people she thought were responsible. “And they were cool about it. They were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we got you.’”
When things seem to be getting tense outside the camp, John says, “We, as a community, have each other’s backs. If it’s a situation where someone has to go out and try to address something, at least a few of us will go out there.” They have even had to call the police a time or two, he says. “We want to feel safe for sure.”
Michelle was involved with an incident in the kitchen and ended up “snapping” at another camper and later felt bad when she learned more about the other person. At that point, she thought it best to involve the Peer Support Workers. “That’s when I have to do an incident report because if I can’t communicate with that person, then it becomes fighting.”
A key to the community, Michelle says, is “just learning to be more patient with each other, especially when people first move in, understanding that they’ve been through some stuff.”
Trust, constructive communication, and engendering a sense of belonging are ongoing challenges for even mature and long-established communities and especially so for CSS communities, which serve people who have “been through some stuff” and are meant to be temporary.
That’s why CSS fills the camps gradually rather than all at once, which sometimes frustrates critics and supporters who want to see the camps filled up quickly to get people off the streets.
“There’s people on the waiting list that have been trying to get in for a long time,” John says. “Why not just fill this place up immediately? But after seeing it in action, I realized there’s a method to the madness. By staggering the addition of new people, it helps set the tone for the environment that they’re going to enter into. If we were to take this camp and just throw 18 people in just like that—I’m not going to say it would be chaos—but it would leave us open for a lot more problems.”
As it is, a little less than a year after the first residents moved in, “We are learning to be part of a community again, part of life again,” Michelle says. “I think it’s pretty good. We have a few snags, but who doesn’t? In a normal family household, you’re going to have bickering or fighting. It’s just how we manage it afterwards. And we actually deal with it pretty well.”
“The longer that we’ve been here, we’ve developed more and more of a sense of community,” John says, “and it’s been great! It’s the closest thing to family that we’ve got at the moment.”