Homelessness came to the forefront locally two years ago when members of Occupy Eugene put the issue at the top of their list of concerns. Since then, advocates have continued to press for safe places for people to sleep. The new "Opportunity Village" is a pilot program aimed at giving people a second chance. Its grand opening is Saturday (October 5, 2013.)
Nestled between small neighborhoods and industrial parks on Garfield Street, there is a new "gated" community. A man with a clipboard greets visitors to Opportunity Village. To enter, one must be escorted by a resident. No drop-in's or minors allowed. Currently, the Village is made up of seven mini-Conestoga huts and eight bungalows measuring 8 x 8 or 8 x 10.
Torrey: "Please go right in."
Reporter: "Thank you."
52 year old Mike Torrey and his wife live in Bungalow number 12.
Torrey: "Our little DVD player and coffee maker. I built a couple of shelves. So basically, it's just like a little house about the size of somebody's bedroom. But it's very functional for us. And we really do like it here."
Torrey and his wife had been living on the streets full time for two years when he was approached by Opportunity Village volunteers.
Torrey: "Alex Daniels and Mark Hubbel came up to me on the corner and my wife and I were holding a cardboard sign in order to make money and they asked us if we might be interested in a pilot project that they were putting together. And I said 'Yes, absolutely.' And it went from there."
Reporter: "If it weren't for this place, do you have any sense of where you and your wife would be today."
Torrey: "Well, like some other people who live here now, we came from the Eugene Mission. We didn't like it there because we can't be together there. They have no accommodations for husbands and wives. So the first thing that attracted me to this idea was that we could be together again, as a married couple should be."
In 2012, the one night homeless count found 1,751 men, women, and children were without permanent shelter in Lane County. That number, while daunting, continues to fuel people like Dan Bryant. He's a pastor at First Christian Church and the board president of Opportunity Village Eugene.
Bryant:"I jumped into this when it was in its original stages eager to help out in any way that I could. Just found a large number of community folk who are very interested in seeing this succeed, who see the problem and feel convinced that we as a community need to find out a different way of doing things."
Opportunity Village is a planned community --with rules.
Bryant: "No drinking, no drugs, no violence, no theft, no disruptive behavior."
Currently 15 people live in the Opportunity Village. It could grow to 45. As a pilot project, the Eugene City Council granted just over a year for them to make it work. That means residents don't want any problems inside. Background checks and interviews are conducted. And everyone must work. Mike Torrey:
Torrey: "I'm on the kitchen committee. I spend a lot of time trying to keep this all clean and organized, making sure people have coffee and keeping everything all straight and tidy."
This micro-housing concept is a prototype that's been successful around the country. It was introduced to Eugene organizers by 26-year Masters student Andrew Heben. He's now on the Board.
Heben: "I did my thesis on organized tent cities, spent a month living in one in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And, so I moved here after finishing my school work, for a job and that kind of aligned with the closing of the Occupy camp which resulted in a task force for homeless solutions."
All the structures at Opportunity Village have been built by volunteers with donated materials.
Heben: "We don't have big time funding but we're getting it done on the power of community."
There are group activities like meals and meetings. This Halloween, one resident couple will get married on site. As homey as this Village may feel--- this is transitional housing.
And Mike Torrey knows it.
Torrey: "The mission statement of OVE (Opportunity Village Eugene) is to transition people successfully out of here back into society. So if all goes well, we will hopefully become a positive statistic."
Opportunity Village Eugene will celebrate its Grand Opening *this Saturday from 1 to 5 pm at 111 Garfield in Eugene.