Portland State tackles homelessness with POD Initiative

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One of three sleeping pods designed by students in PSU's Center for Public Interest Design. Courtesy of Mark Stein

Portland State University is no stranger to innovative, community-driven design. The School of Architecture’s Center for Public Interest Design works toward serving the underserved: from working with reservations in Montana, an orphanage in Haiti, and a fishing village in Ecuador to creating locally-made, green, modular classrooms and a community center in Inner Mongolia. Their latest initiative, a collaborative effort to develop long-term solutions to homelessness in Portland, is no exception.

The CPID focuses on human-centric design and community empowerment. Currently, CPID students are investing their time and energy in the Partners on Dwelling initiative, developed in conjunction with the mayor’s office, the Village Coalition, City Repair Project, homeless services and community members. The initiative was spurred on by Portland’s politically-charged housing crisis: the city council declared a state of emergency in fall 2015, and in Feb. 2016 former Mayor Charlie Hales initiated a six-month Safe Sleep policy, which allowed homeless persons to camp on public property during summer 2016.

The CPID convened a charrettea meeting where professionals, students, community members, social workers and advocates for the homeless—including members of homeless communities—met and put their minds together. Instead of slapping a Band-Aid on the problem, the aim was to think outside the box and come up with a new solution that hadn’t yet been considered.  

The charrette challenged the design and architecture communities to combine their collective knowledge and directly tackle the problems currently facing a large portion of Portland’s population. Rather than just looking at the shelters as a feat of engineering, the meeting looked to design practical solutions.

After the meeting, 14 teams (including two based at PSU) formed and started designing shelters. The two PSU teams focused on creating designs that would utilize reusable materials, ease of assembly, and replicability in order to limit construction complications and reduce the design’s footprint.

The PSU teams ended up designing three pods: the Cocoon pod and the Trot pod, along with a third, called the NW pod. In order to ensure that the designs would be easily replicable by the public, the teams challenged themselves with this third pod, which had to be built within a week and eliminated the need for cut metal and lumber.

Key players involved in the PSU teams include: Todd Ferry, PSU architecture faculty, CPID research associate, and fellow with the Institute for Sustainable Solutions; Sergio Palleroni, PSU architecture faculty and senior fellow with the Institute for Sustainable Solutions; visiting CPID Faculty Fellow Dr. Pedro Pacheco; and local real estate company Neighborhood Works.

Designs from all teams are currently on display at city hall. Once finalized, the plans and designs will be made open source, allowing anyone to build these pods in their own communities. Prototypes have already been built, and were put on display at NW Glisan Street and NW Park Avenue in early December. At present, one location has been designated to host a village of these pods. The proposed community, in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood, is named Argyle Village.

One of the biggest challenges the POD initiative faces is figuring out how the pods will work as a village and how the villages will integrate with existing communities. The initiative wants to change public perception so that these villages are viewed as valuable. To that end, the people involved in creating these villages have to learn and work with the neighborhood in order to gain their support. Most of us have some desire to help the homeless, but solutions fall flat when nobody wants to volunteer in their own neighborhood. The goal is to have these villages—and the people who inhabit them—become a part of the story of the community.

The proposed pods at Argyle Village will house 14 homeless women. Part of the reason for choosing an all-female community is the greater likelihood that women will end up homeless. Complicating the issue is the rise of mental disability among homeless women.

The CPID is in the unique position of being able to reach out to professionals, community members, and students eager to learn and act, and hopes to continue convening charrettes to tackle local issues. Facing the uncertainty of the near future, the CPID and the Partners on Dwelling initiative promote grassroots movements supporting the complex needs of local communities.

Click here for information about School of Architecture and CPID projects. Click here for information about the POD initiative.

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