"In My Backyard," a Film Project on the Kenton Women's Tiny House Village

It’s been almost a year since the Kenton neighborhood residents voted more than two-to-one in favor of the Kenton Women’s Village, the first city-ordained homeless encampment in Oregon. Fourteen formerly houseless women, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, now each live in a 8'x12' sleeping pod. The pods were designed and built as part of the POD (Partners on Dwelling) Initiative, a citywide coalition of architects, housing advocates, and houseless individuals, with many of the materials supplied by the ReBuilding Center. The village has felt more and more like home with the addition of a fully operational kitchen and shower facilities, and a community garden where residents and neighbors can gather and collaborate.

 Photo credit: Portland State University

Photo credit: Portland State University

 Photo credit: Zach Putnam

Photo credit: Zach Putnam

One of the neighbors drawn to this historic project was filmmaker Zach Putnam. He has documented the impact of the village in two short videos: one a profile of a resident (who has since moved into her own apartment); the other an overview of the origins of the project. You can view both of them below. He also included writing, still photos, and a 360-degree virtual tour of the village in his multimedia project, entitled In My Backyard. We asked Zach about his inspiration for getting involved in Kenton Women’s Village. 

What drew you to filmmaking as an art form originally?

My grandfather gave me my first video camera in middle school, a Sony Hi-8 Handycam. Soon I started talking my teachers into letting me make videos instead of writing papers and I've basically been working that scam ever since. I fell in love with nonfiction storytelling, and the art and adventure of documentary filmmaking. Now I primarily produce short documentary-style videos to help nonprofit organizations tell their best stories (and raise more funds).

What was your first thought when you heard about the Kenton Women’s Village?

My first thought was, "That sounds interesting, but how would it work?" I saw my neighbors on social media asking similar questions, in various ways, so I set out to try to answer them for myself and for my neighbors.

How did you get involved?

I follow the Kenton Neighborhood Association online and the village site is right down the street from my house, so I tracked developments closely on social media from the beginning. I actually was working as a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Oregon in Eugene over the winter/spring, so I missed all of the neighborhood meetings about the proposal and the vote. When I was back in Portland for the summer, I needed a storytelling project to complete my master's program at the school of journalism, so I decided to document the story of the women's village as it was built.

What was your favorite moment during the shooting of the videos?

Being invited in by the amazing Jewell Ramirez to spend time with her in her house in the village and hear her incredible story was a humbling honor. I could make a full-length film just about Jewell. Her story is surprising and heartbreaking, and I think it's so important to give houseless folks an opportunity to tell their stories. It can remind us all that these are our human neighbors we are talking about when we debate these issues. 

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Do you have any observations about the collaborative effort that was central to this project?

I was astonished at how complex the collaboration was. Between the neighborhood association, the city, the county, PSU, the Village Coalition, Catholic Charities, the ReBuilding Center, architecture firms, and so many other organizations and activists involved, it's a bona fide miracle that everything came together as smoothly as it did. That's a big part of why I thought it was so important to document this project, to show other communities, "Look, we figured out how to work together on this problem." It gives me hope for humans as a collaborative species.

ReBuilding Center staff hard at work moving the tiny houses, sometimes late into the night, from our temp site (where they were stored before moving) to the Kenton site.

What was your experience with the ReBuilding Center?

When the tiny houses were being transported from a storage lot to the Kenton location, I wanted to capture the move on video. I was hoping to set up a time-lapse camera to capture the pods arriving, but I was having trouble finding out exactly when the move would actually happen. Then I met Tom Patzkowksi, the ace driver and forklift operator in charge of the big move for the RBC. Tom became my man on the inside, and he provided me with up-to-the-minute info so I could be ready to roll when the time was right. I soon learned that Tom works some long and crazy days and my camera batteries couldn't last as long as he did, but I got some great shots of him helping to transform that empty gravel lot into a homey village.

Do you have any personal experience with houselessness?

I'm very privileged in that I have never experienced houselessness myself, which is all the more reason I feel like I need to give back and help people who are living through that. I think being unable to provide housing to all those who need it is shameful for a country that is as prosperous as ours. I've volunteered at shelters in the past, and I've produced many videos for homeless service organizations including the Clackamas Service Center and Portland Homeless Family Solutions, so I am familiar with many of the issues and some members of my local houseless community.

Are you still involved directly with Kenton Women’s Village or any of the residents?

I walk or drive past the village almost every day, but I'm not working there directly right now. I've since been hired by Catholic Charities to produce some videos about the village and some of their other housing programs, so I might be visiting again soon. 

Do you see any advantages to an encampment like the village over traditional shelters?

In the first short video, I think Jewell Ramirez and Desiree Rose do a better job answering that question then I ever could.

Since this project was approved as a one-year pilot, do you know what will happen to the camp and the pods when that ends?

I don't know what the latest is on the status of the pilot project or the lot in Kenton, but I know that the village was always designed to be movable. Everything from the tiny houses to the custom kitchen and bathrooms could be put on a truck and moved to a new location. My understanding is that if the Kenton lot is no longer available and the village is to continue operating, the city will find another lot to move everything to. I'm sure there will be some wrinkles in the execution of that simple-sounding plan, but that is the idea.

Ideally, what happens next with your videos of the project?

I wanted to document this project to help my neighbors understand what happened here, and also to help other neighborhoods understand how something like this might work in their communities. Income inequality and the many societal symptoms of that are going to get worse before they get better, so we all need to be thinking about innovative solutions to housing, hunger, mental health and more. My hope is that this story will be shared widely and help other neighborhoods think about trying out and hopefully improving on this village idea.

Check out Zach Putnam's full project, "In My Backyard," on his website here >

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