While Sherry and her twelve-year-old niece, Sobeyda, were living in shelters across Portland and Vancouver, Sherry’s car was broken into and hundreds of dollars of clothes and medication were stolen. Both she and her niece contracted influenza B and needed to be hospitalized. They were harassed by a man also staying at one of the shelters.
“We were sleeping there in the middle of a hundred people. I wanted to make sure we never got used to people living like that,” Sherry says. “I remember within three days, two ladies got into it, fighting in front of all of us. I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I can just go sleep in my truck and not have to worry about anybody.’ But I needed to make sure [Sobeyda] had a place to sleep.”
In Portland, the number of people experiencing homelessness grew 10 percent between 2015 and 2017—twice the national rate—to more than four thousand people on any given night. This includes more than three hundred families who sleep in shelters and motels each night; as temperatures drop, this number grows. City leaders declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015, which allowed them to reduce regulatory barriers to developing affordable housing and increase funding to support people living on the street. And while Portland has fewer people experiencing homelessness than other large cities and there were more people in shelters than outside during the last annual count, high rents, a shortage of shelter beds, and a lack of affordable housing continue to push many onto the street.
But a recent pilot project in which four families live in private accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in the backyards of four single-family property owners may be a rare, long-term arrangement. It provides families a chance to get back on their feet and enmesh themselves in the daily life of school, parenting, work, and the parts of society they haven’t had time or stability to participate in.
The project was developed by the Multnomah Idea Lab (MIL). Created as a tool to identify innovative solutions to current policies at the intersection of poverty and race, MIL is a revolutionary concept within government. MIL director Mary Li says it acts as a disruptor to bureaucracy, challenges contemporary ideas, and provides potential paths to change.
Li says that while more and more affordable housing is built every year, those projects are expensive and can take several years to complete. Because Portland real estate is so expensive, many of these developments are farther east in order to keep building and housing costs down. Li says this pushes people who are experiencing poverty farther away from services, their families, and their neighborhoods.
“We’ve probably tripled the number of shelter beds that are available in this community on any given night,” Li says. “The housing levy has put millions of dollars into building affordable housing, however there’s nothing in between. Shelter is life-saving [but] it is crappy living for anyone, but especially for a child. Even a couple of weeks in the shelter is a couple of weeks too long.”
The MIL arrived at a fairly simple but unusual question: Would private homeowners in the city core—owners of the last bits of unused and underutilized land in the city—use their biggest asset to help someone else? When asked, many responded with a resounding “yes.”
The pilot, funded in large part by a grant from Meyer Memorial Trust, proposed placing four ADUs—two prefabricated and two built on-site—in four Portland backyards for five years. Each 300-to-400-square-foot ADU has enough space for a small family of up three people, chosen by county social service providers. In alignment with federal Section 8 vouchers, families would be asked to pay 30 percent of their income as rent unless they don’t receive any income. Homeowners commit to the program for five years and receive no monetary compensation. At the end of the five-year program, the homeowner will be able to purchase the ADU at fair market value or can have it removed at no cost.
More than one thousand Portland homeowners expressed interest before the MIL closed the application page.
The MIL and project partner Enhabit, a nonprofit housing agency, then narrowed the list of homeowner candidates to four with the help of Portland State University using a series of objective criteria, including proximity to schools, transportation, grocery stores or laundromats; size of the existing sewer pipe; and separate access, such as an alley, to the property besides a driveway.
Four ADUs have been built, and all are occupied. Families have signed leases with a property management company. The funds are used to pay for utilities and upkeep. Leases can be extended for up to five years depending on successful tenancy and desire of the family living in the ADU.
More than a year after the initial ask, Enhabit surveyed the thousand-plus families about whether they were still interested in participating in the project. A whopping 75 percent said yes, Li says.
“That’s amazing. We need to understand that,” she says. “I thought we’d be beating the bushes to get to maybe fifty potential homeowners. It reminded me that when people can help, they will. They saw themselves in this in a way they hadn’t seen themselves perhaps in other homeless strategies. And [it reminded me] that homelessness seems so big and intractable and unassailable; there’s nothing we can do to end it. But when people see a way, they will.”
If successful, Li believes the approach could be used in many ways, including veterans, women-housing-women-experiencing-homelessness, and keeping senior citizens in their homes.
“We had a number of folks on the landing page say I’m a vet, I got my house through the VA, I want to do this, too, so I can house another vet, because I know what it’s like to come back,” Li says. “There are a lot of applications that can tie into this, anti-displacement and gentrification, and specific populations that could use this as a tool.”
The MIL’s ADU project is not the first attempt in the county to offer semi-permanent housing to certain sectors of the city’s homeless population. In 2017, an unaffiliated, year-long pilot project launched in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood. The city of Portland and Multnomah County housed fourteen women in tiny homes with shared amenities, as a stepping stone to a permanent address.
Neither are cure-alls for Portland’s homeless problem, but both could be powerful tools.
“There’s this zombie idea that if only there were enough tiny houses there’d be no homelessness,” Li says. “It’s not true. However, there is a role for a small house or an ADU that absolutely should be in the toolbox along with big apartment complexes and other types of housing to end homelessness and to address the underlying poverty, address the underlying asset deficit, and change our thinking around who is in poverty and why.”
It was only last year that Sherry felt like she had finally woken up from the haze she had lived in for nearly a decade. But her newfound independence also left her without a home.
Sherry, who had been living with her then-partner and daughter since 1998 in the Portland area, slipped and tore her right meniscus at her job as an apartment manager in the late 2000s. For the next eight years, she felt like she lived in a muted world, numbed to her surroundings by the pain medication she was taking. Her relationship turned dependent and eventually abusive.
“While my head wasn’t clear, I couldn’t even take a shower,” Sherry says. “I was afraid of the coldness, I couldn’t go out, I was afraid to drive, of accidents, all these phobias with the meds.” In 2015, things got worse. Within nine months, Sherry lost five family members. Her cousin, nephew, mother and sister all passed within one month of each other.
In May 2017, she asked her doctor to help her wean off the medication. For the first time in nearly a decade, Sherry felt strong and clear-headed. She ended her relationship in October and moved to California to stay with her dad the following month.
But the brief move opened old wounds, many Sherry had simply floated past while she was taking medication. “Getting off of it cleared my mind. It made me so strong that I wasn’t going to put up with anything anymore.”
One of her younger sisters left behind Sobeyda, who was bouncing between living with Sherry's father and her other
sister. But when Sherry arrived, she realized Sobeyda was suffering from abuse and neglect.
In the few days Sherry stayed with her dad at her stepmom’s house in 2017, she experienced firsthand what life was like for her niece. Sobeyda lived in a small shack with no water or bathroom outside the main home. When Sherry was visiting, she stayed with Sobeyda and discovered the doors to the main house were locked at night and they were barred from the bathroom. The two were forced to urinate outside.
Initially, Sherry looked for resources, both through the state of California and her tribe, the Pascua Yaqui, but hit barrier after barrier. When she saw how Sobeyda was being treated, she knew they needed to leave. The two drove back to Portland on December 21, right before the snow hit, and slept in Sherry’s truck in a TriMet parking lot in Tigard.
Sherry chose not to return to her abusive relationship because of Sobeyda.
“I could’ve just been with him and put up with everything and I would be okay,” Sherry says. “But then I thought, ‘I couldn’t put [Sobeyda] in a situation like that.’ I knew it needed to be just us with the things that have happened to her.”
After several sleepless nights, the two eventually connected with services and bounced between shelters in Vancouver and Portland for the next few months, hoping to get to a point when Sherry could afford a place of their own.
“I will drop pride for a home, whatever it takes. Something to eat. And that’s the way you think when you become homeless,” Sherry says. “I can’t call my mom anymore, I can’t call my sister, I don’t have a support group.”
Sherry was contacted over the summer about the possibility of living in one of the MIL’s pilot ADUs. She drove by the site before her application tour, amazed at how quiet and calm the neighborhood seemed and instantly fell in love with the space. She prayed she would be chosen.
“I’m very responsible,” Sherry says. “I pay my bills, I get Social Security, everything is where it should be except my rent and the stability of being home.”
Martha Chambers once considered building an ADU of her own as rental income for her retirement.
But the headache of planning, permitting, construction noise, and working with contractors while trying to work at home as a graphic designer made her back out. Nearly a decade later, she learned about the MIL’s pilot project from a neighbor and applied.
After rounds of meetings, interviews, and site assessments, Chambers’s sunny yellow North Portland house was chosen as a test site.
“I was really excited to be the first house,” Chambers says. “Sherry said in one of the interviews, ‘When I got chosen, I feel like I won the lottery,’ and I said to her, ‘I feel the same way.’”
Naturally, Chambers’s neighbors were curious about the project. Many, who know her from her daily dog walks, were supportive of the low-impact, outside-the-box idea. Before the families were chosen, Chambers hosted an open house and invited her neighbors to come over and see the setup for themselves.
“One of the other nice things about [this project] is it involves the community and I think that’s a very important part of it,” Chambers says. “I feel like I’m doing something even though all I did was open up my backyard.”
Opening her backyard to a family experiencing homelessness wasn’t only driven by the hope of eventual additional income. In one of many meetings with the MIL, Chambers learned how the Mobile Housing Team, a six-person team within the Multnomah County Department of Health Services in charge of placing families in the ADUs, were going to choose the families and how difficult it is to find housing or shelters with children in tow. Some were victims of domestic violence, something Chambers had experienced firsthand.
“My mom was abused and us kids had to watch that and we asked her would you please get a divorce, we don’t like this,” Chambers says. “She didn’t because she was an orphan, so she did not have a supportive family, no parents to rely on and didn’t know how to do that. There weren’t these kinds of services and certainly no program like this. Maybe it’s some kind of karma.”
Sherry and Sobeyda were not the only two candidates who applied to live on Chambers’s property, but they ultimately connected over their love of dogs.
“Several people came to see this place,” Sherry says. “It was like winning a million-dollar lottery.” She and Sobeyda moved in on August 1, 2018.
Though Sherry and Chambers are still just getting to know each other, they’ve already hit it off. Sobeyda loves Chambers’s three dogs, Ziggy, Zipper, and Zena. Sherry and Chambers often cook for each other.
“I love her sweets,” Sherry says. “She’s a really good baker. We call her Martha Stewart.”
Li says part of the appeal of this project is its ability to put families back into the fabric of the community. “The act of becoming homeless is such a ripping and tearing of the fabric,” Li says. “Then you’ve been lifted out of your compass points and thrown into space and the things you put your life on are no longer there. To be able to come back into a community and rebuild those compass points, not just physically but literally, ‘Where am I in the world?’ ‘Where is my family in the world?’ I think it’s part of the act of healing from the trauma of homelessness.”
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