It’s not just housing that helps — it’s community | Guest Viewpoint

Judy Alexander, Debbi Steele, and Carla Main
Posted 10/20/21

What if we told you that we can’t solve the homeless crisis by building houses? That’s a pretty counterintuitive statement, especially coming from an organization like ours — …

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It’s not just housing that helps — it’s community | Guest Viewpoint

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What if we told you that we can’t solve the homeless crisis by building houses? That’s a pretty counterintuitive statement, especially coming from an organization like ours — Community Build Project of Port Townsend — whose most visible activity is building tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness.

Yes, we do build houses, or tiny shelters, as we call them. 

So far, our volunteer teams have built 22 of them, and we plan to build more. 

But more importantly, we’re trying to build community, by which we mean groups of people who care about each other and feel a sense of belonging. We want to encourage the wider Port Townsend community to support and interact with small-scale villages where people coming out of chronic homelessness can find safe shelter and feel a sense of connection or belonging, even if only for long enough to get their feet under them and reengage a functional life.

Other organizations we’re working with include Bayside Housing & Services, Housing Solutions Network, and Olympic Community Action Programs, or OlyCAP. We’re discovering that the more people know about our programs, the more they’re willing to embrace what we’re doing and support us with volunteer time and donations. We like to think of these valuable contributions as investments in the future health of our community.

Our first project was building
12 tiny shelters for Peter’s Place, a temporary village in Port Hadlock. Developed in partnership with Bayside Housing & Services, OlyCAP and Community United Methodist Church, Peter’s Place has been well received by the local neighborhood.

We’re now working on 10 shelters for a second village being organized by Bayside called Pat’s Place. The shelters have been built, and you can see them lined up next to the Evangelical Methodist Church along San Juan Avenue as they wait to be moved to their next location behind the QFC between 9th and 10th streets. 

We’re also bringing together community members and leaders of area churches in monthly conversations to explore ideas for creating a permanent village, one in which a chronically homeless person could move in and never have to leave. We believe that now is the time to address what promises to be a growing challenge as rising prices in Port Townsend and around the country make it more difficult for people to afford housing.

Many of us take our inspiration from a very successful program in Austin, Texas, called Community First! It’s a 51-acre planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive environment for people coming out of chronic homelessness. Housing options include tiny homes, vintage Airstream trailers, RVs, and even a few teepees.

“This transformative residential program exists to love and serve our neighbors who have been living on the streets, while also empowering the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless,” the organizers say.

What makes Community First! so special is that it’s just that – a community. Within the village, residents are able to work and earn a dignified income in a variety of enterprises, including a garden, a café and catering program, an art studio, an automotive service center, and a metal shop and forge. A central market, which is open to the public, then sells the goods produced by the residents.

Community First! also has become a destination for people not necessarily experiencing homelessness. There are several Airbnb rentals available so people can visit, and organizers report that at least one couple so valued the essential kindness and compassion of the community that they sold their home and moved there to be a part of the experience.

We invite you to learn more about Community First! during a free online screening on Oct. 18 of a documentary film called “Community First, A Home for the Homeless.” Showtime is 6:30 p.m. 

After the screening, we’ll participate in a conversation about what we’re doing in Port Townsend and answer your questions. 

For more information about the screening and all of our programs, go to our website at https://community-build.org/. 

We also encourage you to get involved in our programs in whatever way works for you. We welcome volunteers to help with building, painting, gardening, event planning, and many other activities. You can learn more at our website.

In the words of Community First! founder Alan Graham, “Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Judy Alexander, Community Engagement for Community Build Project

Debbi Steele, Volunteer Coordinator for Community Build Project

Carla Main, Volunteer with Housing Solutions Network

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