As Eugene site for unhoused people continues to grow, so does hope
What will eventually be Eugene’s largest transitional shelter site is roughly halfway completed. Everyone Village in west Eugene is aiming to provide 100 spaces on its acreage, and give residents a safe and secure environment.
33-year-old Elizabeth Deffenbaugh wanted off the cold, damp streets of Eugene. Unable to meet renter qualifications and contending with disabilities and PTSD, she spent several years living in a tent near a dog park.
“It’s just kind of been an ongoing issue in my life since childhood,” she told KLCC. “I grew up in foster care and ran away from that, and just kind of traveled around with hippies so didn’t really have a home -a stable home- ever.”
On top of that, Deffenbaugh said she often felt harassed by Eugene city workers and police, who would force her to relocate at times, and ticket her if she didn’t comply fast enough.
“Under the guise of checking up on you and making sure you’re safe. Just intimidation, basically.”
In February, Deffenbaugh escaped that chaotic existence on the streets. She’s now at Everyone Village, which opened its 3.5 acre site last October. At last check, more than 40 residents live here, in shelters ranging from RVs, pallet houses, and Conestoga huts.
Gabe Piechowicz is the village leader. He said residents go through an application process and must abide by community rules. This includes a checkpoint between the village and the main entrance, and no substances beyond cannabis and tobacco.
“If someone comes up just requesting to see someone inside, we don’t confirm or deny that anyone does live here. We take messages, and we really try to protect our villagers, because some of them have lots of safety concerns.”
Piechowicz – a Christian pastor with Everyone Church – also leads spiritual services. He said he’s happy to help everyone in their journeys, regardless of faith or belief system.
“It’s so individual, just like any human story,” he said. “And so what we’re pioneering here is, developing natural, relational interviewing with folks as they move in to hear where they’ve been, where they’d like to go, what their goals and dreams are, and then building a plan so that they can achieve those.”
And so each villager essentially has their own unique timeline in regards to learning and preparing for off-site residence and employment, Piechowicz added.
Local officials have supported Everyone Village’s development. Kelly McIver, spokesperson for the City of Eugene’s Unhoused Response, said the city has invested $170,000 on site development funding, with an additional commitment of $364,000 per year in operating expenses. He said besides Piechowicz’s enthusiasm, the innovative model of Everyone Village has drawn support from businesses and community partners, including the Rexius Family who donated the acreage.
This adds on to a number of other developed sites for the unhoused across Eugene, run by a variety of organizations including St. Vincent de Paul and the Eugene Mission, among others.
“Which is a really good thing, we want to have diversity in the kinds of things that are offered to folks,” said McIver. “Because trying to address the issue of homelessness, is definitely not a one size fits all kind of issue.”
Recently, 14 new residents came to Everyone Village, after the city broke up a large homeless encampment in Washington-Jefferson Park in March. Some homeless advocates groused at the monitored checkpoint and restrictions, a criticism McIver acknowledged.
“Sometimes there is pushback from folks who believe that people should be able to have guests in, and to be able to socialize in the place that they’re living.
“We’re trying to move folks from an unstructured environment where they have essentially been at the mercy of the world out there, where they’ve had very little in the way of boundaries or protection.”
One person who appreciates that security is Toni, a 56-year-old mom from Arizona. At the request of Everyone Village, KLCC is only identifying her by her nickname, to protect her privacy and safety.
“I could go any direction I want to now where before I had to work on surviving,” she said. “Y’know, I can actually dream and achieve dreams now where before it was like, ‘That'll never happen.’”
Toni said every day on the streets felt like climbing Mt. Everest. But in her warm, dry, pallet shelter with access to cannabis and spiritual gatherings, she’s able to focus more on art and less on survival and loneliness.
“They’re working together to make it a family, and it’s working. We’re learning how to be normal people.”
There’s still about four dozen more sites to put into Everyone Village, but work continues to make it a transformative space. In a section set aside for her garden, Elizabeth Deffenbaugh recently watched her vegetables grow. She also keeps watch over a family of killdeer that have built a nest nearby.
“Yeah, we’ve had cats chasing the killdeer. And then I’ve also been trying to keep people at least 20 feet away from them because they are a protected species of migratory bird.”
Deffenbaugh wants to find long-term housing soon, and possibly start an at-home business. For now, she feels safe at Everyone Village, and is appreciating her own patch of peace here.
“I use this as my quiet zone. I don’t allow negativity in here. Only positive thoughts and talk, ‘cause it’s better for the people and plants that way.”
Meanwhile, the City of Eugene continues to develop other strategies to address homelessness. A recent Chamber of Commerce report found over 3,100 people in Lane County were unhoused on August 21st, 2021 and only 42 were moved into housing that same month.
Note: A similar version of this story was published recently on NYU's journalism site, The Click.
Copyright @2022, KLCC.