Effectiveness of tiny pod villages as alternative shelter for people experiencing homelessness
Researchers at Portland State University released one of the first studies that examines the effectiveness of tiny pod villages as alternative shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
The report includes a how-to guide with best practices to help inform city leaders around the country who are considering this model. Psychology, architecture, and urban planning researchers at PSU's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative (HRAC) spent two years interviewing villagers, site managers, neighbors and builders to develop the report and guide.
One of the key findings was the connection between a sense of agency and villager satisfaction, said lead researcher and HRAC co-founder Todd Ferry, who has been working in this field since 2016 as associate director at the PSU Center for Public Interest Design.
"Giving villagers a voice and sense of agency over how villages operate had a huge impact on villager satisfaction. It didn't have to be a full self-governance model," he said. "But just a clear way that they were involved in decisions."
The study yielded a range of practical recommendations from designing village elements for mobility to the ideal number of villagers, which many placed at no more than 30 residents per site.
- 86% of villagers were largely or very satisfied with their pod, 69% were satisfied or very satisfied with their village, 79% were satisfied or very satisfied with their neighborhood.
- 45% of villagers report food insecurity. Food insecurity remains a major problem.
- Villages have disproportionately served white men: 17% of villagers in this study identify as BIPOC despite BIPOC residents representing 40% of the unsheltered population in Portland.
- Most neighbors who reported concerns about villages at first reported no longer having those concerns after living near a village.
- 69% of villagers said that they should share in decision-making at the village, while 26% said that only villagers should determine what happens in the village. Overall, the feeling of having a voice in the village had major impacts on villager satisfaction.
The study includes 80 in-depth interviews from six villages and more than 2,000 community surveys in the Portland area. Portland is home to one of the first and longest-running villages, Dignity Village, built 22 years ago by people experiencing homelessness. With the city's long history of villages and multiple examples, Portland is an ideal place to study this type of alternative shelter.
PSU students were integral, not only to the report's completion but in designing, researching and building the tiny home villages. Lisa Patterson, M.Arch alumna, was involved early-on in the design of the Kenton Women's Village while pursuing her graduate degree. While the initial reaction to the village has been positive, she said, the opportunity to look back at the first iteration showed that future villages should be developed with the involvement of the residents who will live there. This belief helped inform the Pop Out Pod design by PSU alum Avery Asato, whose work is featured in the how-to guide.
"There is so much value in listening to and learning from other perspectives and experiences," Asato said. "The design of the Pop Out Pod was the culmination of research, ideas, and input from the whole studio, our teachers, and especially the women at the Kenton Women's Village."
Katricia Stewart worked on the report with HRAC while pursuing a Ph.D. in community psychology, and is now able to use what she learned in her work helping communities implement solutions to homelessness. Stewart said as other communities look to alternative solutions to homelessness, she's able to rely on the research done at PSU to inform her work.
"Solutions to homelessness should be safe and support the dignity and humanity of people experiencing homelessness," she said. "Village models are one way to do those things."
Overall, villagers in the study reported high rates of satisfaction with the pod, village and neighborhood. But the model has not been as effective in serving BIPOC residents. Only 17% of villagers who participated in this study identified as BIPOC despite BIPOC residents making up 40% of the unsheltered population in Portland. BIPOC villagers also reported lower levels of belonging and acceptance in their villages.
"The village model, when implemented thoughtfully, serves an important response to alternative shelter, but questions still remain about the model's racial equity. Projects such as the AfroVillage in Portland, designed by and for BIPOC residents, offer future versions of the village model that could better serve people of color," said Center Director Marisa Zapata.
Researchers hope that these findings will help communities better understand villages, help improve existing ones and establish best practices for designing villages of the future. The research and design team created the village how-to guide to be as user-friendly as possible so anyone from a potential villager to community organizers could use it.
Marta Petteni, a designer with HRAC who is now working as an equity researcher & designer at Opsis Architecture, said focusing on a user-friendly approach will make it easier for organizations, people experiencing homelessness and advocates to use the guide and build a path that works for their population. Petteni added that while so much of the design process is often isolated, the village projects and this report give students a chance to go back and learn from residents using the spaces.
"When you combine design and research it's so powerful," she said.
The report acknowledges that the only solution to homelessness is permanent housing and supportive services. Villages offer possible alternative shelter while communities strive toward providing permanent housing for all.
"This research gives cities a full picture of what a village is and best practices informed by people with experience living in villages, working in villages, designing villages and organizing villages. I hope it will be a resource that leads to better outcomes for those living in villages," Ferry said.
A few unexplored opportunities identified in this report include: integrating villages into emergency preparedness plans; designing villages to better support parents; creating a city-level village liaison position; designing villages around activities and interests and leveraging village investment toward the creation of affordable housing.
"Identifying, designing, and advocating for solutions to such a complex issue as homelessness requires long-term, collaborative efforts from across different disciplines," said HRAC co-founder Greg Townley. "This has been perhaps the most truly interdisciplinary project I have ever worked on, combining expertise in social science research, urban planning, and architectural design. We hope the information presented in this how-to-guide helps communities better understand the village model and the role it plays in the array of housing and service options available to people."
Provided by Portland State University