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Think your house is small? Former homeless call ‘Conestoga’ huts home in Eugene

Mark Hubbell sits on the porch of his Conestoga Hut, in the parking lot of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Eugene. The shelter is one of the first, small portable living structures for homeless people that has been built as part of a demonstration project by the City of Eugene and area shelter advocates.

Mark Hubbell sits on the porch of his Conestoga Hut, in the parking lot of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Eugene. The shelter is one of the first, small portable living structures for homeless people that has been built as part of a demonstration project by the City of Eugene and area shelter advocates. AP Photo/The Register-Guard, Chris Pietsch

EUGENE — Next time you complain about your house being too small, think about Mark Hubbell, Diane Sciacca or Greg Bregg.

They are among the people in Eugene who reside in 6-foot-by-10-foot living spaces, in an experimental type of housing for the homeless called Conestoga huts.

Some of the huts could become the first shelters at Opportunity Village Eugene, a proposed homeless community on city property on Garfield Street.

Hubbell lives in a Conestoga hut at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection on Hilyard Street, near East 40th Avenue.

He said the value of having a home again — even a temporary, extremely small one — is “immeasurable.”

“You really can’t put a price on it,” he said. “When you become homeless, your day-to-day life is about survival.”

“It’s home,” Hubbell said of the hut. “It gives you security.”

Two other huts are on the church’s parking lot, under oak trees. Three other huts are at Westside Apostolic Church on Grant Street, south of West 11th Avenue. The Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene plans to put two Conestoga huts on its property at West 13th Avenue and Chambers Street by the end of the month.

Assembled by volunteers out of new and donated materials for a few hundred dollars apiece, the huts are being placed on the church properties as part of the city-sponsored overnight camping program for homeless people.

Managed by St. Vincent de Paul, the program lets people sleep in vehicles, including old motorhomes and trailers, on privately owned land, including church properties, in Eugene and Springfield.

The Eugene City Council last December expanded the program to accept huts. St. Vincent de Paul is willing to accept more huts if it can find additional sites through agreeable property owners, said program manager Keith Heath.

Vehicle campers are asked to follow overnight camping rules at the sites, including no drugs, alcohol, violence or panhandling.

“If you are at a church, you can’t approach parishoners after the services,” Heath said. “There are basic rules and regulations and one would think that if you are on a church site, that you are on holy ground and there as just some things that you don’t do.”

Huts made locally

Homeless advocates and church leaders who formed the non-profit group Opportunity Village Eugene are raising money to buy materials to make more huts. They hope some of the structures can be moved this summer to the proposed Opportunity Village site on Garfield Street, near Roosevelt Boulevard.

“Some of the churches may want to retain their huts, but those that don’t will go to the village,” said Jean Stacey, a member of the Opportunity Village board.

The Rev. Brent Was, priest at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection and an Opportunity Village Eugene board member, said the church’s board was happy to allow the huts on church property. The church had previously participated in the vehicle camping program.

Hubbell and Sciacca are mingling with church members in various ways, Was said, including attending church potlucks and using the church kitchen to prepare meals.

“We are building community with them here,” he said.

The wood huts, mounted on concrete blocks, have a front wall with a door and a back wall with a window, attached to an insulated floor.

The structures are covered with a curved roof that extends down the sides, giving the huts their Conestoga wagon-like appearance. The roof and side walls are made from wire livestock fencing bent over the top of wood framing and covered with plastic and insulation.

The huts were created by Erik de Buhr, a 31-year-old Eugene designer and builder of small houses for what he calls “community village living.”

He builds the floors, walls and other hut components at his shop on Grant Street, next to Westside Apostolic Church.

The parts are taken to vehicle camping sites and assembled by volunteers.

Church provides electricity

The first huts seem to be performing well, though de Buhr lengthened the structures by two feet so they would have a larger covered front porch.

“This is still beta testing” he said.

About 70 people, including members of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, on Jan. 5 put together the first two huts. Another hut was added a couple of weeks later.

The church provides electricity to the huts through extension cords.

Each vehicle camping site managed by St. Vincent de Paul has portable toilets and a trash dumpster.

Hubbell’s hut has room for a small bed, and small pieces of furniture, including an end table. The huts are high enough that Hubbell can stand inside without having to stoop.

He’s stacked books on the floor, and hung pictures of his two grown daughters and granddaughter on a wall.

A small lamp provides light. The hut is heated by a flameless propane heater.

Hubbell, 53, said he has periodically been on the streets since he was 17.

He said his last full-time job was three years ago when he worked as a prep cook in Connecticut.

He traveled to Portland last March because his brother lives there. Hubbell became homeless, spending nights under the Burnside Bridge.

Hubbell then stayed at the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp near Old Town Chinatown in downtown Portland.

He came to Eugene last fall at the request of Eugene homeless advocates who had enlisted the help of people who were involved with Right 2 Dream Too and Portland’s Dignity Village, a homeless community that serves as a model for Opportunity Village Eugene.

Hubbell and others from Portland were among the people who urged the Eugene City Council to approve something similar to Dignity Village and to repeal the city’s ban on overnight sleeping on public property.

The council has tentatively endorsed the idea of allowing a homeless village on the city’s vacant Garfield Street property for 18 months. The council has made no decision about repealing the ban against overnight sleeping on public property.

Hut is warmer than trailer

Hubbell eats meals at Food For Lane County’s downtown dining room. Some Episcopal Church of the Resurrection members have hired Hubbell to do yard and housekeeping work.

Hubbell says he wants to move to Opportunity Village Eugene, get a job and eventually a place of his own.

“As a father of two grown girls, I don’t like the image that I present,” he said.

He said he’s been self sufficient before “and I just want to get back to that.”

“The hut and Opportunity Village Eugene will provide that foundation, to get from where I am, which is houseless, to housed,” Hubbell said.

The huts are considered more secure housing for homeless people than tents because they have hard walls and a lockable door.

In some cases, they provide better living conditions than trailers or vehicles.

Sciacca, who lives in a hut near Hubbell, had been living in an old recreational trailer at a vehicle camping site in Alton Baker Park. The trailer’s roof leaked.

“The trailer was moldy and the air quality was awful,” she said.

The hut, heated with a propane heater, is “dry and the air quality is terrific,” she said.

Sciacca, 51, said she lived in an apartment in Eugene, before becoming homeless last summer.

She’s painted the outside of the front wall of her hut purple and the exterior back wall green and attached a pair of gargoyles next to the front door. She’s put potted herbs and other plants on the porch.

Nighttime temperatures in the hut “aren’t exactly toasty, but I don’t see my breath anymore like I used to in the trailer,” Sciacca said.

“This is my home”

One of the three huts on a parking lot at Westside Apostolic Church is home to Phil Bregg and his black Siamese cat, Sukki.

Bregg, 32, works as a telephone interviewer for Venture Data in downtown Eugene.

“There are a lot of people who are in my situation,” he said. “I’m not a drug addict or alcoholic. I just couldn’t afford to be in a home because of the economy.”

Before moving into the hut in January, Bregg had lived at the church’s vehicle camping site for a couple of months in his 27-year-old, two-door Subaru hatchback.

Bregg said he has been a member of the church since 2010, which is why he ended up there.

Living in the hut is a big improvement over a car, he said.

“I can stand up when I put on my pants,” Bregg said. “But beyond that, it’s a place that I can come home to and have my belongings be safe. It makes me feel more like a person rather than a transient.”

Bregg’s hut contains a twin bed, a bookshelf, small dresser, laundry basket and covered litter box.

Bregg made a small fold-down table that attaches to the wall.

“This is my home and I will treat it as such,” he said. “And that includes figuring out improvements to make it more livable.”

Bregg said he’s a certified pharmacy technician and he hopes to get a pharmacy job.

“Hopefully, I will get a pharmacy tech job so I can move beyond here and let somebody else have this opportunity,” he said.

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