First Christian Church officials aren't positive yet that a tiny house community is the best answer for Albany's homeless population — but they do know they want to find an answer.
The Albany church organized a committee this past August to look into homelessness and possible solutions. Members visited in October with the Rev. Dan Bryant of First Christian Church of Eugene, executive director of the nonprofit SquareOne Villages, and Bryant offered to present a workshop on the two tiny house communities his group has established so far.
More than 50 people turned out Sunday afternoon to the church to listen to that presentation. Some of the people in the audience indicated they'd like to help establish tiny houses in Albany, while others said they're interested in living in one.
Stacey Bartholomew, coordinator for the committee, said the turnout was about double what she expected and makes her hopeful of community support.
She and the Rev. Tim Graves, the church's lead pastor, say the committee will now do more research and seek community help to see if a tiny house community is something it should pursue.
"We just don't have the housing in this town. We don't have enough shelters, either," Graves said.
Each Tuesday, First Christian (Disciples of Christ) serves between 175 to 200 plates of food to hungry people who have nowhere to go, he said. Most come every single week.
"We know most of them by name," he said. "As Christians, this is our calling. This is what we're about, is caring for your neighbor."
Bryant, who grew up in Albany and graduated from West Albany High School in 1973, joined the staff at his Eugene congregation in 1991.
By then, he said, the church already had established itself as a resource for people in need. It had a clothing closet and a family shelter coordinated by St. Vincent de Paul.
In Bryant's time, the church has added a free weekly breakfast, a "trailer ministry" that lets homeless people stay in trailers on its property and a warming center for people who need a place to go when temperatures drop to freezing.
Bryant also deputized a retired minister who formed a team of people to work directly with people who come to the church seeking services. Most of them weren't looking for prayers or spiritual solace, Bryant said: They were seeking help with basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter.
"Finally one day, I just said to myself, it's time for somebody to go upriver and figure out why all the people are falling into the river," Bryant said. "Why are they falling in, and how can we prevent them from falling into the river?"
Bryant concluded homelessness was driving a good portion of the need. Without a place to sleep safely at night, raise a family or even just keep a few belongings, "it's very difficult to survive as a human being," he said.
The problem, he found: Affordable housing really isn't. Anytime something is built with public dollars, the restrictions drive up the prices. He estimates a multi-person housing setup for Eugene's estimated 700 chronically homeless people would cost about $125,000 per unit: $44 million in all.
In contrast, so-called "tiny houses" can be built with fewer materials and plenty of volunteers, Bryant said. Grants, donated supplies and in-kind contributions of labor and materials have made his agency's villages possible for less than $80,000 — and that includes the land.
SquareOne Villages began with Opportunity Village: A secured area with 30 miniscule cabinlike structures ranging from 60 to 80 square feet, basically just big enough for a bed.
The structures don't have power, water or toilets. Instead, residents shower and do laundry in a community bathhouse and cook meals at an outdoor community kitchen.
Opportunity Village was a pilot project on city-owned land, made possible through a clause in Oregon law that allows for in-city "campgrounds" to be used as transitional housing.
The cabins aren't exactly homes, but they're warmer and safer than camping out on a bench or under a bridge, Bryant said. And studies have indicated that getting people indoors is cheaper to society in the long run than trying to play catchup for their needs through jails or emergency medical care.
Opportunity Village led to the creation of Emerald Village, which will have a grand opening later this year, Bryant said. Unlike the ones in its sister village, the 22 homes will be full-fledged houses, with foundations, bathrooms and small kitchen spaces all built to city codes. They'll be permanent homes for their residents, who will pay $250 to $300 per month in rent and utilities.
The homes will be a little bigger — 160 to 320 square feet — but still able to be built in part by volunteer labor, which is part of what makes tiny house communities doable in a way a standard apartment complex might not be, Bryant said. And they will be owned by people who can better afford to keep them on an income that relies solely on Social Security, say, or disability payments.
SquareOne is creating "a miniature form of the American dream," Bryant said: a safe, efficient, attractive and affordable living space for someone to live in, "as every child of God should."
Bryant said SquareOne is giving presentations all over Oregon in hopes of replicating what its' done so far. "We're trying to build a statewide coalition of folks who want to do this."
Albany may be one of them, but this is just the first step in the process in looking into solutions for homelessness, Bartholomew said.
"Housing is a primary issue for making any progress in their lives," she said. "The need is there. It's a huge need."