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 & ServicesHousing 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, and organizers report that at least one resident sold their home so they could move to the village.

We 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 — Community Build Project .

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

Note: This post originally appeared as a guest opinion column in the Port Townsend Leader.

Top image by Franco Folini is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article! My husband and I visited Community First! in Austin, TX in 2019, and I was moved almost to tears with the beauty of the concept and the way it had been implemented. We spent over a month in the Port Townsend area in the late summer, 2021and fell in love with the community. If we decide to relocate to the Peninsula, you’ll have my volunteer services in this effort to provide shelter and support for homeless citizens.

  2. Great article! And i continue to come back to a fundamental….that homelessness has a base cause in our broken national economic system and our equally broken cultural ethic.

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