Jim Schmidt’s Letter to the Tuesday Hut Crew
Jim Schmidt is the long-time coordinator of the volunteer crew that assembles Conestoga Huts and led the Tuesday crew, one of three crews, through CSS’s recent expansion. He wrote this letter to that crew after the Hut portion of the expansion was completed.
The adventure started last fall, October 9, 2020, to be exact. I had been building Conestoga Huts for Community Supported Shelters since 2013 at a slow, steady pace. Working from the shop, we could complete two or possibly three Huts a month. Those first Huts were primitive affairs at best. You would see the family resemblance, but what we have now is the end result of refinement, change, and evolution. We had placed Hut #100 about six years after Hut #1. We had a small crew of dedicated people and we usually worked on Tuesdays. It was a great way to fill a void left by retirement.
The ominous meeting on that October day was called by Erik de Buhr. Erik is the Imagineer who designed the Huts and the Energy Source that got them built and placed. Erik had some interesting news for us. With the pandemic gaining strength, the City of Eugene was worried that the Egan Warming Centers would not be operational in the winter. If they were to open, the Warming Centers could have become super spreaders for the virus. It would be nearly impossible to find volunteers to staff them. Unhoused people would be at extreme risk out on the cold streets. Major Tom Egan had frozen to death on a street in Eugene. No one wanted that to happen to anyone else.
How does this impact us, I asked? Erik then announced The Impossible Plan. The City would be underwriting a Hut-building surge. We would have five city-owned lots available. Each one would hold 18 Huts. We would be going full speed to build 90 Huts. We would be partnered with Essex Construction. They would build the major components, floors, walls, and decks. They would deliver them to our sites. We would have a large container on each site to act as a remote shop. Everything we needed would be stocked into the container. Extra staff would be hired to facilitate all the hundreds of details that go into building 90 Huts.
I thought that he had lost his grip on reality. Ninety Huts in a few months? Where would the man (and woman) power come from? We would expand from one Hut Crew to three. Pujita had lists of potential volunteers. I started to work on those lists. Many people were no longer available for any number of reasons. Jobs, family, virus concerns. A few were interested and available. Slowly the numbers grew, and I was able to split the long list into three crews, one each for Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, about twelve people per crew. I knew we would need many more.
Then came the waiting. Infrastructures needed to be installed. Fences. Walkways. Essex was not able to keep up. Crucial components were not available. The fall passed, all those wasted Tuesdays when the weather was fine. I knew that bad things were ahead, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Finally we started placing Huts at Skinner Farm. We already had six Huts there, we added nine more, but left it at 15 as we moved to Lot #9, a site near Autzen Stadium. We built 18 Huts in what seems like the blink of an eye. We didn’t know how good we had it. Level surface, gravel, easy to work. The next sites were not so easy. We moved to the Barger/Highway 99 area. Mud. Everywhere. I came home and hosed about five pounds of mud off each boot each time we worked there. My pristine blue truck, known as The Princess, had mud on her tires, wheel wells and floor mats. A deeply disturbing thing for me to see, as you can well imagine.
That site, called the Empire Park site, was the scene of a momentous day. All the stars aligned. The crew was big and enthusiastic. (The Tuesday Crew is AWESOME!!) The weather was cool but clear. We just kept going and going and built FOUR Huts, a record unlikely to be broken in our lifetimes. It was exhausting and trust me, we’ll never do anything like that again.
With Empire finished, we moved on to the Westmoreland site, on W. 18th near Chambers. More of the same, more mud, more incredible crews placing 18 more Huts. Our last major site was on Bertelsen. Because of a change of heart by the city, the fence line was moved, and we only had space for 14 Huts there.
We are now finished with the mini-site at Graham Field, six more Huts bringing us to an astonishing 89. The three crews had completed 89 huts in just six months, about one Hut every other day.
It could not have happened without you. I try to express my gratitude after a build, but words seem so small compared to what you did. Along the way, people had life changes that meant that they could no longer work with us on Tuesdays. They were replaced by others who joined us, sometimes at just the perfect moment. Newbies became old hands. Some brought family members and friends to help. Some drove long distances to join our crews. Most stuck with the program through some discouraging days. We worked on cold, damp mornings. We worked in freezing fog. I came home one day with a huge purple bruise on my left ring finger. I had crushed that finger, but had not felt any pain, my hands were so cold. I never heard a complaint, even when we were ankle-deep in mud. The job site became my favorite place. There was a quiet purposeful feel to it. No raised voices, just a low busy hum. There was an intensity, but also a sense that we were working to complete a worthwhile project. Each person on the job was accorded respect and recognized and appreciated for their skill. It was also a place to learn new skills. There was pride in the camaraderie and in the results.
All of this against the background of a massive pandemic.
And those results exceeded all possible expectations. Our efforts will provide safe, dry, secure housing for at least 89 people.That is not a small consideration, it is a huge accomplishment.
This has been an adventure that I’ll remember fondly. Not only for what we accomplished as a big, mildly dysfunctional family, but for the friendships forged, the relationships that will be maintained and the feeling of unity as we attempted to fulfill the crazy dream of providing simple shelter for those in need. There are many people who talk about the problem of homelessness. You rolled up your sleeves and gave of yourselves to try to solve the problem. You gave and you gave, your time and skill and sweat, and now the dream isn’t so crazy.
Watch for emails from me in the future. In the meantime, I’ll miss you all, and what we shared every Tuesday morning.