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Andrew Heben offers homes for homeless in Opportunity Village

As an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, Andrew Heben developed his thesis project with an unusual field study: live in a homeless tent-city for a month. With a degree in urban planning underway, Heben set off to Ann Arbor, Michigan to live in a community called Camp Take Notice.

“I never really got into it specifically as a homeless advocate per se,” Heben said, “but the more I looked into (tent cities), the more I saw that there were some positive things going on.”

Today, Heben is the co-founder of Opportunity Village, Eugene’s first tiny-house community for the homeless. It’s essentially a step up from a tent city except each resident has his or her own tiny house. The homes are basic, modular structures, each built from about 15 to 20 wooden panels and containing only the bare necessities — a bed, some storage and a lock on the door.

Opportunity Village consists of 30 little brightly-colored homes, along with shared spaces that include a kitchen, a shower, a washer and dryer for laundry and a large, heated yurt as a community meeting place.

Although Opportunity Village doesn’t look anything like a typical tent city, Heben says that the idea behind it is the same.

“It’s basically building upon those positive social dynamics that occur in tent cities,” said Heben. “People were forming communities that were providing mutual aid, where people who were in similar shitty situations were working together to improve their individual situations.”

Just after his senior year of college, in November 2011, Heben moved to Portland, Oregon, the same month the Occupy Portland tent-camp was evicted. As a result, Heben found himself surrounded by people interested in exploring the same types of community solutions for the homeless that he had looked to in his thesis. When his work moved him down to Eugene, he began to collaborate with others to make Opportunity Village a reality.

“It’s cool to be in an area where these ideas are taken seriously and tried, whereas there are a lot more conservative regions that would see this as young idealism,” said Heben.

Heben’s approach is revolutionary in that it has made the model of a tent city into something government-approved and accepted by the community at large. He’s made the idea viable by improving the physical infrastructure of community buildings, giving residents access to basic amenities and implementing a self-managing organization within the village.

What’s more, Heben has taken his thoughts one step further by documenting his ideas, experiences, and village models in his book “Tent City Urbanism. Its liberally illustrated pages tell of Heben’s experiences visiting several homeless communities in major cities around the country, along with what works well and what doesn’t in each of these villages.

He has drawn out models of each of the communities he visited, including some in Nashville, Tennessee; St. Petersburg, Florida; and Seattle, Washington. His own Opportunity Village is a combination of the elements that Heben saw working well for each of the camps. Heben hopes that by documenting and illustrating all of these processes, he will have models that can be replicated by any city that’s interested in similar projects.

Now that Opportunity Village has been successfully housing families for about a year and a half, Heben sees how the village has developed its own identity— a compilation of bits and pieces that each resident leaves behind.

“To see how it just keeps getting better is pretty cool,” he said.

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