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Author on homelessness says ‘will’ crucial to solving growing crisis

More than 60 volunteers worked to erect the micro-housing community Opportunity Village in Eugene in 2013. The 30 micro-homes range from 60 to 80 square feet in size, and are supported by common cooking, gathering, restroom, and laundry facilities. Since the program started, it has served more than 100 otherwise homeless individuals and couples.  (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)
More than 60 volunteers worked to erect the micro-housing community Opportunity Village in Eugene in 2013. The 30 micro-homes range from 60 to 80 square feet in size, and are supported by common cooking, gathering, restroom, and laundry facilities. Since the program started, it has served more than 100 otherwise homeless individuals and couples. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)

When it comes to homelessness and the crisis of affordable housing, our attention has been fixed on the city of Spokane and the battle over Camp Hope.

But the problem is by no means limited to one camp, or to one city, or to cities in general – as Sarah Ben Olson can attest. Olson is a volunteer with New Hope Resource Center in Colbert, where she has seen the number of homeless people, and those who are one emergency away from homelessness, steadily rising.

New Hope serves an area of about 100 square miles from Hawthorne Road to the northern Spokane County line. A lot of folks living there tend to think, “We don’t have that problem out here,” Olson said, “which is false.”

She calls it an invisible housing crisis. More than 400 students in the Mead School District are considered homeless under the federal definition, which includes families doubled up or living in vehicles.

Rents in mobile home parks have jumped from $275 to $600 in three years. Almost three-quarters of the low-income clients New Hope serves “can afford $578 on rent and utilities combined – and there’s no housing available at that price,” a New Hope news release said.

The nonprofit, which is funded by 15 churches, served 34 homeless people last year – but it wasn’t easy finding them help. After cycling through various local options without success, New Hope wound up using one-time grant funds to put up 24 people in a Spokane Valley motel during the winter.

Meanwhile, there are scant resources to help in the northern reaches of the county, she said, noting that the organizations focused on the problem in Spokane aren’t extending their reach to Colbert or Elk.

“What are we going to do as a community to address this?” she asked. “If we do nothing, we know where that’s going to end up.”

As a way to address that question, New Hope invited the architect and author Charles Durrett to Spokane to give a presentation Thursday night on what he sees as one solution for communities facing a crisis of homelessness: cohousing projects.

‘Where is the will?’

Durrett has designed more than 50 cohousing projects around the world, including Haystack Heights in Spokane’s South Perry neighborhood. The projects are built upon the values of connection and community, with private residences arrayed around shared spaces such as kitchens, dining rooms and gardens.

It is this sense of neighborhood and connection that he believes makes cohousing projects well-suited for bringing people off the streets in effective, long-term ways.

His projects serve all kinds of communities, but have included a tiny-house village for the homeless in Eugene and one in Nevada City, California, where he lives.

But Durrett, who is an author and frequent public speaker, doesn’t think the solution to homelessness begins with brick and mortar.

“There’s only one avenue to solutions, and that is will,” Durrett said this week. “That is what we have to address: Where is the will going to come from?”

Before any kind of solution can occur, there has to be a widespread recognition about the nature of the problem and a commitment to solving it, he said.

“Some people say, ‘It’s Darwinian that people are dying on the streets,’ ” he said. “That’s a consciousness that’s got to sunset. We’ve got to get back to, ‘It’s all of our responsibilities to do something about it.’ ”

He’s the author of several books, including “A Solution to Homelessness in Your Community.” He’s in Spokane this week, sharing his ideas with groups focused on helping the homeless; he gave presentations here in the spring, as well.

Durrett describes his approach not as “housing first” but as “community first” – prioritizing the need for solutions that foster connections among residents, give people a private living area and an ability to self-govern, and provide stability while addressing needs such as treatment, identification and a mailing address, plus access to transportation and services.

He said he believes that such villages, as opposed to large shelters, offer hope for long-term change. It’s not easy, but it’s doable, he said. And he believes that if they are well-planned, with buy-in from the business community, neighbors and social services, they are efficient as well as humane.

As others have pointed out, Durrett notes that funding homeless services can save governments money, because the exorbitant costs of existing homeless response are often buried inside municipal budgets for fire and police response, emergency room visits, jail, cleanup and code enforcement, and others. The average annual cost-per-homeless-person for municipalities has been estimated at between $30,000 and $50,000, he said.

He cited the story of “Million-Dollar Murray,” a homeless man in Reno, Nevada, who was the subject of a 2006 Malcolm Gladwell story in The New Yorker. Reno police figured that the man, Murray Barr, had cost the city more than $1 million over 10 years.

“It cost us $1 million not to do something about Murray,” one officer said.

‘A looming crisis’

Durrett believes that if communities can find the will, they can avoid that – and avoid situations like those plaguing Spokane.

He’s become a proponent of tiny-house villages, after some initial skepticism, in large part because he’s seen that many homeless people tend to really like them, which helps ensure that they work. His firm designed such a village in Eugene for $8,000 per unit, he said.

That community is governed by a board of residents, enforces rules and is building what he sees as the goal of such projects: creating high-functioning neighborhoods.

In a city that has seen the Camp Hope debacle – both the on-the-ground crisis and the political stalemate that surrounds it – that may sound like something happening on a far, far shore. But it’s useful to know that just such a project has been proposed here, by Jewels Helping Hands, though it hasn’t received any traction from political leaders.

Olson saw one of Durrett’s presentations in Spokane earlier this year, and that’s what prompted New Hope to bring him here this week. The nonprofit has had a homelessness task force for almost two years, and has been struggling to find ways to help desperate people.

Many New Hope clients don’t think of themselves as homeless – but they meet the federal definition of living without a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” This included doubling up in someone else’s home or couch surfing. It includes those living in vehicles.

New Hope is limited in what it can offer them, and Olson wants to sound the alarm so others in the community recognize the need and act.

“We want to educate the public that there is a looming homelessness crisis on the North Side,” she said.

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