Tiny homes a solution to big homeless problem?

Vancouver man envisions ‘eco-village’ to get people on their feet

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Stamp your foot three times if you need Bill Barkley to repeat himself.

Barkley, 74, has been struggling with a degenerative neurological condition for the last couple years. It makes his speech hard to understand, and it has halted his work has a professional carpenter and contractor. He doesn’t have a definite diagnosis.

None of that has dampened his spry spirit -- witness his cheery directive to start stamping for a rerun. And it sure hasn’t stopped him from hatching some huge ideas about attacking homelessness.

“The solution to our problem will happen from the bottom up, not from the top down,” he said. “The economy and the mess that it’s in -- we need to build housing that’s sustainable and affordable and small. And the underemployed and unemployed can build it.”

That’s not just a pipe dream -- it’s a system Barkley is developing now, based in a vacant lot in Hazel Dell. That’s where Barkley and a homeless family have been building an 8-by-12-foot shed complete with insulation, skylight, sliding patio door and little porch.

The project has already made some money for Share, the local provider of services to the hungry and homeless. Photos of the shed led two bidders at a recent Share auction to contract for two identical structures to be built on their properties -- for $3,200 apiece. (The lead builder will be Steve Oberst, husband of Susan Oberst, a Share staff member.)

That’s fine with Barkley, but he’s aiming higher than that. He wants to expand on this model to create a 16-by-24-foot version that includes a bathroom, kitchen and sleeping loft.

Ultimately, he envisions an “eco-village” that’s not too different from what now sits just west of Portland International Airport. That’s Dignity Village, a semi-permanent homeless camp mostly composed of what are essentially habitable sheds -- miniature freestanding homes built by the occupants themselves.

Like Shanin Zachman and her family. Zachman, her fiancé and her two kids, ages 11 and 6, were camped out for a couple years in some woods alongside Northeast

Highway 99 when they noticed Barkley and his building project just across the way from Yard ‘n Garden Land on Northeast 102nd Street.

Mark Sonney of Yard ‘n Garden gave Barkley permission to use the vacant, adjacent parcel for his building project. That’s after Barkley first built a 3-by-4 model entirely out of scrap materials, just to show it could be done. The final product had practical value as a dog house, he realized -- and it was auctioned off by Share for $600. That got Barkley brainstorming his bigger vision of homemade, human-scale homes in an eco-village.

He went to work on the 8-by-12 shed last fall. And that’s when Zachman approached him -- just to borrow some wood for a fire, she said.

“We just happened to see him working on the building,” she said. A friendship was struck up, and before long Zachman and her family were helping Barkley with the job.

Meanwhile, she said, the family also attracted the attention of police and the owner of the land they were squatting on. At first they were told to leave, but Zachman really disliked the idea of heading for a homeless shelter; eventually they got permission to stay where they were. Word of the family got around, and they received Christmas gifts and food from numerous beneficiaries, including the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and students at Columbia River High School. They even got to stay in a motel for a couple of nights.

Now, Zachman said, the family has moved to a small rental house of its own. “We’re still trying to get on our feet,” she said. But they come around to help with the labor that Barkley can’t do anymore.

“Just to see everybody come together like this has been amazing,” said Barkley’s friend, Jim Callihan, who used to serve on Share’s board of directors. “There have been a variety of neat unintended consequences.”

The consequence that Barkley intends: pulling together land, needy people and recycled building materials to create that “eco-village.” He hopes some combination of Share, local government agencies, service organizations and others can come together to plan a model community of the type he’s envisioned -- a place where homeless and jobless people can work together and build some skills while creating their own small, efficient homes.

“They’d have to earn it,” he said.

To spark wider interest, Barkley, Zachman and other volunteers will complete the shed across from Yard ‘n Garden and add attractive landscaping. It won’t be a home but will serve as a freestanding advertisement for his vision.

“This would be a learning experience for all involved,” Barkley said. “It would be a success if people looked at this little village and said, ‘That’s cute, I wouldn’t mind living there.’”

If you are interested in pitching in with the project, contact Susan Oberst at Share, 360-750-4436, ext. 309, or write to volunteers@sharevancouver.org.