Martice Bauersfeld, 53, sits on the porch of her tiny house in Kenton Village. The North Portland village of 14 homes is operated by Catholic Charities and is the first government-supported, neighborhood-approved homeless village in the city. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Martice Bauersfeld, 53, sits on the porch of her tiny house in Kenton Village. The North Portland village of 14 homes is operated by Catholic Charities and is the first government-supported, neighborhood-approved homeless village in the city. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

Martice Bauersfeld takes a drag on her cigarette and flicks the ash away from the welcome mat beneath her feet.

Behind her is an open door revealing a full laundry basket and a cat litter box for the scrawny kitten she’s adopted. She pauses mid-sentence as a woman shouts angrily a few yards away. Bauersfeld smiles.

“We sometimes clash and aren’t all on the same page, but we are still trying to get to know each other, learning people’s stories,” says Bauersfeld. “I feel so fortunate to be here.”

The open door, the stoop, the sitting down to chat — they are all new and valued pieces of a life that’s moved off the streets and into an unusual community in North Portland.

The 53-year-old Bauersfeld is one of 14 inhabitants of Kenton Village, a temporary community of tiny houses for homeless women operated by Catholic Charities of Oregon. It’s the first government-supported, neighborhood-approved homeless village in the city.

As the women adjust to the experimental arrangement, so too has Catholic Charities.

“Since this is a pilot project, we came in knowing we had to be flexible,” says Savanah Walseth, Kenton Village manager. “But for the most part it’s been a great success.”

The City of Portland reached out to Catholic Charities to help with the project because of its experience providing low-income housing and working with homeless women, says Margi Dechenne, program manager for Catholic Charities’ Housing Transition Program. Every year, the housing program helps up to 100 homeless women find a permanent home.

“The success we’ve had with transitional housing has allowed us to be part of new, creative solutions … that are examples of Catholic social teaching,” adds Kirsten Goetz, partnership navigator for Catholic Charities.

There is a critical need for additional housing: The homeless population in Portland’s Multnomah County increased nearly 10 percent in the past two years, a 2017 point-in-time survey shows. The survey, a collaborative effort between the county and the City of Portland, indicates that almost 4,200 people are without permanent homes on any given night in Portland.

There are inevitable difficulties that come with serving the chronically homeless — 46 percent of whom have severe mental and/or substance abuse disorders, according to the Virginia-based National Alliance on Mental Illness — but there also were some unexpected glitches at Kenton Village, which opened June 10.

The night residents moved in, part of the fence surrounding the village was knocked out by a driver performing donuts in the formerly vacant lot. Two days later, the generator powering the community started smoking. Dechenne was quickly on site, fire extinguisher in hand.

An onslaught of attention from media and curious neighbors led Catholic Charities to hire a professional security guard, replacing its original plan to have women take security shifts. They also hired a second site manager.

“Things have settled down now, though, so the women may take on the security shifts soon,” Walseth says.

The village is self-governed and weekly general assemblies are a time to address arguments, typically about food or cleaning duties, village culture and how residents can become involved in the neighborhood.

The women are invited on regular outings and to events, such as a recent concert in the park. One day they handed out extra donated hygiene supplies to area homeless.

Walseth recalls one woman telling her afterward: “I’ve always felt I had to be a taker, and for the first time I felt I could be a giver.”

The residents have been giving to one another, as well. They carpool and encourage each other to take care of themselves and recommit to abandoned goals. One woman went to the doctor for the first time in 10 years, another is working on her high school diploma.

Though technically still homeless, the residents have the gift of time in the village, says Dechenne. “When out on the streets, you lose so much time just trying to find safety and food,” she says. “There’s the theft and violence, including rape. The fear can cripple them from being able to do anything.”

Resident Jewel Ramirez, 63, who previously alternated between shelters and the streets, says that having “my own space here, a lock on the door, is such a relief.”

Articulate and with a love of art and books, Ramirez spent her childhood in foster care and has long struggled with a drinking problem. Since arriving at Kenton Village, she’s looked into a treatment facility.

Inside Ramirez’s tiny house, a paperback novel rests on a donated patchwork quilt. A neat row of lotions and makeup line a shelf.

“Living on the streets people leave trash everywhere,” she says. “I don’t like being like that, I’m not like that.”

Because the houses are small and simple — without even plumping — they can be hauled to a new site once Catholic Charities’ lease of the city-owned property ends in about a year. The goal is to find permanent housing for at least seven women before then, but some may be referred to shelters at the end of the year.

Kenton Village is the result of collaboration among numerous groups. Portland’s Village Coalition, which advocates for tiny houses as a means to address homelessness, helped guide the project. Partners included several architecture firms and, following some community debate, the Kenton Neighborhood Association. Students from Portland State University School of Architecture contributed to the design of the homes.

“It’s been a wonderful partnership of different organizations,” says Goetz, adding that support from the surrounding neighborhood also has been beautiful to witness. One woman regularly drops off local fruits and vegetables, and a man donated smoke detectors for the dwellings. A high school student made solar panels to add lighting.

Goetz encourages members of local Catholic parishes to get involved. “Even just going to get coffee with the women or helping with a job application,” she says.

At one side of the village, near the trailer-housed communal kitchen, is a garden the women designed and tend.

“Planting their own food has been something important to them — to see the plants grow,” says Walseth. The women wanted the garden in the shape of a four-leaf clover, with each leaf in the shape of a heart. “The design,” Walseth says, “is for luck and for love.”
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How to help
If you or your parish community would like to bring meals to Kenton Village, become a community partner (a mentor or friend who supports residents), or otherwise assist the project, email Kirsten Goetz, partnership navigator for Catholic Charities, at [email protected]