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Current Feature Story


 

Life in a Safe Spot: “We all have the key.”

‘What is a Safe Spot Community?’ informative banner designed by Graphics Volunteer Steve Downey and Development Director Annie Herz.

When Community Supported Shelters established its first camp for people trying to work their way out of homelessness in 2014, the City’s term for such camps—rest stops—did not quite capture what founders Erik and Kristin Fay de Buhr envisioned. The CSS designation of Safe Spots sometimes causes confusion when it comes up in the media or policy discussion, but its meaning is crystal clear to those who live in the camps.

“This place here is, like the sign says, a Safe Spot, really a safe spot,” says Herman Reyes, 69, the first resident in the new Lot 9 Safe Spot, after an earlier stint at the Expressway Safe Spot. “You come in here and you’re going to say, ‘Somebody cares.’”

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Herman left the Santa Clara home he shared with his wife and grown son several years ago because of emotional clashes that frightened him. He camped. Got a job at a resort in the Oregon mountains. Stayed in a tent at the Nightingale homeless camp when it was first established on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Slept in his car. Couched surfed. Kept working as a housekeeper. Still tried to take care of his family. 

“It was rough when you have to work and pay bills, take care of people, your loved ones,” he says. “You want to help them out. At that time, I still had a car, but it’s hard to get things done when you have to live like that in a tent or your car. You’re just barely doing a little more than surviving.”

In the summer of 2020, he moved into a Hut at the CSS Expressway Safe Spot. “It was a whole lot better. I could stretch out and sleep. There’s a bed.”

And with that bed came a community. “You communicate,” he says. “You talk. People are always eager to help with ideas they’ve got to make it better.”

After about six months at that camp, Herman figured his time there was beginning to run out and he was doing reasonably well, so he decided to leave to make room for someone else. “I had a car. I had a job at that time. I could still move around. I was more fortunate than others, so I didn’t want to take up that space, so I left so other people could use it.”

Herman went back to couch surfing or living in a tent or his car. But when CSS began the challenging task of building a community in the 18 new Huts at Lot 9, next to Autzen Stadium, they called Herman. They wanted someone with his CSS program experience—and his heart—to be the first resident.

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Herman, resident of the new Lot 9 Safe Spot community.

 

In mid-February, Herman moved into the brand new Lot 9 Safe Spot, which sits between the Autzen Stadium parking lot and Alton Baker Park. He watched as the camp was completed with a common building with solar lights and charging stations, a well-equipped kitchen, and a hand-washing station. Six other people moved in two weeks later, with 11 more Huts to fill after the camp community gets a little more established.

“I was just so amazed at how it comes together and how well it’s really working out for everyone,” he says. “You might get one bad apple in the barrel, but this program is so well organized and run. It’s so simple and it keeps on going smoothly.”

The others in the camp know they can ask Herman questions because of his experience with CSS. “I might know a little bit about it, but it’s not like I’m an expert or anything. Actually, the way we do it—because it might be about something I don’t know—we’ll say, ‘let’s figure it out together. We’ll get it.’”

Herman says the community is developing among the new folks at Lot 9. “They all get along pretty well. We’ve all been hurt. They’re aware of that. Everybody here is in the same boat. They watch out for each other so nobody triggers an explosion. Everybody’s pretty cool.

“This place is the next step up from sleeping on the sidewalk. On the sidewalk you can get kicked around. Here, you’ve got other people in the same situation. Anybody who lives here can lock the gate anytime or unlock it any time they want. If I come home from work at 6 in the evening, then I’m in and I feel safe. We all have the key.”