[Posted November 1, 2019]
What looks like a tiny-home village at the edge of the soccer field next to the Mittleman Jewish Community Center at 6651 SW Capitol Hwy. is not in fact housing, but a jobs training site where the non-profit Cascadia Clusters builds shelters for houseless people. After pandemic-related financial difficulties forced a hiatus of several weeks, work has resumed at the Capitol Hwy. headquarters.
Cascadia Clusters, in operation at this site since 2019 under a lease agreement with the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, was forced to suspend operations this summer, laying off their staff of paid trainees. Funding generated from residential construction work and PPE loans in the spring had allowed the organization to keep working early in the pandemic. When that money ran out, work stopped.
Now, new revenue streams and private donations from several sources, including family members and an anonymous donor, have allowed operations to resume.
Founded in 2016, Cascadia Clusters is a multi-faceted non-profit organization with the primary goal of preparing houseless Portlanders for careers in construction. Founder and Interim Executive Director Andrew Olshin explained that participants in the program are trained to industry standards in craftsmanship and safety by building shelters for houseless people. The trainees are all houseless and some have past addiction issues or criminal convictions. All are paid a living wage while they learn skills that will allow them to find jobs and become self-sufficient.
Currently under construction at the site are tent-platform pallets, built under a city contract to replace deteriorating platforms at three city-operated tent camps. The income from the contract, along with the donations received, will help Cascadia Clusters pay their construction staff while providing additional training opportunities.
Olshin emphasizes that the organization works with the houseless, rather than providing services for them. Residents of camps receiving shelters participate in the installation and are fully responsible for providing the water source and where needed, propane.
Construction, says Olshin, is one of the few remaining industries where individuals with past drug abuse or criminal convictions can find jobs that allow them to regain their independence. Over the past four years Olshin has had several trainees, mostly men and a few women, who have participated in the program. Many have relapsed or left the program for different reasons. “That’s how it is sometimes with addiction,” says Olshin. But a few have stuck with it and have gained the skills and experience necessary to qualify for jobs and apply for a contractor’s license.
What Happens Onsite
While it can sometimes appear deserted, the site on Capitol Hwy is many things at once: a homeless services organization that partners with non-profit and faith-based volunteer groups, a work site where portable shelters are built, a training program for houseless people, a licensed construction company, and an after-school construction program for children in grades 6-12.
Most noticeable from the street is the wall of colorful panels separating the MJCC soccer field from the worksite.The panels are decorated by the various volunteer groups that have helped out at the site, including SW Portland-based Positive Charge PDX, Portland Waldorf School, and Tivnu, a Jewish gap year program focusing on social justice.
Among the structures visible from Vermont Street are “sleeping pods” that, when completed, are transported to sanctioned villages on city or private property in different parts of Portland to provide shelter to houseless people and their belongings. Cascadia Clusters has built structures for residents of Agape Village, located on property owned by the Portland Central Church of the Nazarene on SE Powell Blvd. east of 82nd Ave., and at Hazelnut Grove in N. Portland. Lacking water and power, these are not the tiny homes you might see on Instagram or in magazines.
Larger structures onsite are mobile wash houses, or “hygiene pods,” that provide shower and laundry facilities. Once the pod is installed on-site in a homeless camp, water is piped in from 55-gallon plastic drums and heated by propane; electricity for lighting is produced by solar panels that power lithium batteries. Built on trailer frames, the hygiene pods can be moved wherever they are needed. The first disabled-accessible mobile wash house is nearing completion.
The large shipping container at the back houses a shop area where after-school workshops were held pre-pandemic. Tarps are now ready to cover larger outdoor areas to accommodate COVID physical distancing requirements when after-school sessions start up in late October.
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