Conestoga Huts Offer More Options for Housing the Homeless
Every community in the country is struggling to find housing options for the homeless. While some have opted to build micro-housing units, a nonprofit organization in Eugene, Oregon, called Community Supported Shelters (CSS) has come up with innovative shelters called Conestoga Huts.
An Inexpensive and Durable Shelter Option for the Homeless
The name Conestoga Hut is derived from their similarity to the covered wagons used in the exploration of the American West. These huts have 60 sf. of living space with a 3 ft. porch and a built-in bed. They are made with modular, and often, recycled components that can be transported easily and installed at sites operated by service clubs or church groups.
The cost of a hut is around $2,500, and the operating cost for a 20-shelter site composed of Conestoga Huts is approximately $50,000 per year. These huts provide viable and durable shelters compared to tents under an overpass. Additionally, they can be transported to and placed on church properties or on sites donated by a local government. Currently approximately 70 huts have been in installed at sites in Eugene and Springfield (OR) and 31 huts have been installed in Walla Walla (WA). Some of these sites are operated by CSS while others are operated by other nonprofit or faith-based groups that purchase the huts from CSS.
A key to the success of CSS’s program is its detailed governance model, which sets out the rules and expectations for residents of the sites that are operated by CSS. Other organizations are free to adopt their own rules. The goal is to offer these huts as transitional shelters with the aim of moving the residents towards stability, empowerment, and hope.
The length of stay for the resident is initially for 30 days, but this can be extended by 6 months and then another 3 months if progress is being made, for a total of 10 months. Camp residents are required to vacate the site between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. while their belongings are kept safe and secure behind a locked fence. Ensuring the safety of resident’s belongings gives them an incentive to leave the site and seek services, treatment, or employment.
Monthly check-ins, camp duties, and participation in site upkeep and maintenance are required of all residents. Three written violations of rules result in a resident’s eviction. The program is immensely popular with a 60-70 day waiting lists at many sites.
In Washington, RCW 36.01.290 provides for homeless encampments operated by religious organizations. Many cities have adopted ordinances that impose a 6-month, maximum duration for the encampment and some limit these encampments to no more than one within their jurisdiction. Some of the larger jurisdictions are more permissive. The time and number limits, along with other stringent requirements make it difficult for religious communities to make the investments needed to provide meaningful services. Currently most codes do not allow non-religious, nonprofit organizations to operate a site.
The City of Eugene is on the national forefront of addressing homelessness. In 2013, the council passed Ordinance No. 20517, allowing the city to address homelessness in creative ways using regulations on Permitted Overnight Sleeping in Section 4.816 of the city’s Municipal Code. Current programs are as follows:
- The Rest Stop program allows up to 20 people to sleep overnight in tents on property managed by a community agency or organization that acts as a site provider. The city requires the site provider to enter into a 1-year operational agreement for shelter oversight and management. This agreement includes performance standards and the timeline for operation can be extended by the city based on the site's performance.
- The Car Camping program allows overnight sleeping in up to six vehicles (includes cars, tents, campers, trailers, or Conestoga huts) in a parking lot of a religious institution, place of worship, business, or public entity that owns or leases the property in question. Sanitary facilities and garbage service must be provided by the site operator.
- The Dusk to Dawn program allows homeless people to sleep overnight at preapproved sites, generally owned or leased by a nonprofit or faith-based group.
Interestingly, Eugene’s regulations are not part of its zoning code but instead are a part of the “Offences” section of the municipal code.
A Regional Approach
One of the challenges in addressing homelessness is determining the answer to this ongoing question: “Whose problem is it?”
While the homeless population can be very visible in urban, centralized city cores where services are available, they nonetheless reside in suburban communities as well. Therefore, addressing homelessness on a regional basis makes sense.
In a regional approach, communities could adopt a common set of regulations and enter into interlocal agreements to share the cost and responsibilities. For example, those communities providing shelter sites could include their fair market lease value as part of their fair share of the costs.
A regional approach is good for the participating local governments because the rules are consistent across jurisdictions and one entity cannot adopt more stringent rules than the other. It is also good for the service providers, such as faith-based groups, that no longer have to navigate through the intricacies of each jurisdiction’s regulatory process.
While local governments are best suited to providing infrastructure, such as land, utilities, funding, etc., the provision of homeless services is not a traditional, core city function. Thus, contracting with the faith community and nonprofit organizations for the operational aspects is the most effective approach. Sample language based on Eugene’s program is available for download.
Several cities from WA and OR have shown interest in the CSS model or taken tours of CSS sites in Eugene. Similarly, the Conestoga Hut program is immensely popular with the homeless, with individuals often sitting on a waiting list before becoming residents. CSS has published a detailed “How to Build a Conestoga Hut” manual, which can be purchased at its website.
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