Building Hope

Erik Debuhr fights homelessness in Lane County one hut at a time. Photo by Violet Hawthorne


Gavin Branch

Sanctuary often seems like a relative term. A room with a beautiful view of palm trees on a California beach, perhaps a remote cabin on top of a forested mountain, would represent a sanctuary for many. For others, the thought of four walls, space to sleep and most importantly the ability to close and lock a door is a dream. Finding a place to sleep for the average person might be as simple as walking from one room to another. Someone without this privilege might spend an entire day thinking, planning, and stressing about where their next rest will come, forfeiting their time and attention from escaping the streets to surviving in them. To escape homelessness people need money, to get money they need to work, and to work they need a reliable place to sleep, and sleeping on the streets is anything but reliable. That’s the variable Erik DeBuhr is trying to solve, a place to sleep.


DeBuhr is currently the Executive Director of Community Supported Shelters (CSS), a local nonprofit that has sheltered almost 700 unhoused people in the past seven years. Originally from Nebraska, Debuhr picked up his construction skills partly in a carpentry apprenticeship and working in a mill but is mostly self taught. His journey towards building huts, however, began with junk, or as he states, “resurrected refuse.” 


DeBuhr and a team of salvagers would collect scrap and build things like Icosa Huts, tiny geodesic dwellings constructed out of 90 percent industrial waste material and meant for one or two people. Up to this point, DeBuhr and his wife Fay had been building huts and conducting workshops for people who had land and who were interested in community housing. As DeBuhr states, “when we started in 2009, we had no money to start with. We were just basically dumpster divers. Taking materials out of the industrial waste stream, and making useful products out of it.”  


In 2012, they saw a property for sale that looked suitable for their mission of spreading low impact housing and building community in their residential area to anyone who wanted it; with the help of an investor they were able to purchase the property. Around this time the Occupy movement, in which people protested economic inequalities, hit major cities across the country, including Eugene. The DeBuhrs built a hut prototype at the protest site. It captured attention, and the Conestoga Hut was born. 


CSS started around the same time the first Conestoga Huts were built. CSS has a mission of being the first step in the ladder leading out of homelessness. The Conestoga Hut, which is the cornerstone of the program, is reminiscent of a covered wagon just without the wheels. It sits on a simple wooden platform and is six-foot wide by 14-foot long and close to eight feet tall. It has a lockable door, and an insulated floor, walls, and roof. Most importantly, it is quick and easy to build and has a low price tag. The goal associated with CSS and their huts is to provide security and solutions to some basic problems of living on the streets


The huts are not warm, comfortable experiences for most, and they are not necessarily supposed to be. As DeBuhr explains, “the drive to improve your situation comes from, and has always come from, not being comfortable.” 


The huts are meant to give people a stepping stool that then allows them to reach that hypothetical first rung of the ladder that could allow them to change the circumstances that keep them unhoused. People that stay in the huts must have motivation to want to improve their living conditions and move out of the huts and into their own housing. DeBuhr believes that while the shelters are important, the community and social network are also a huge part of the program.


“The hut is just a vehicle for that kind of life change that happens from social engagement in the community,” says Debuhr. “They live with up to 18 other people, working through communal obstacles, and problem solving issues in the community. Working together, comradeship building, it’s basically a support group around them of other people that are in their situation.”


In his years of working with the unhoused community, DeBuhr has ideas on how he would fight homelessness. He explains that there is no clear route out of an unhoused situation and that he wants to create a path to get out. DeBuhr believes the community built between residents is the most valuable product of the program and is what will help them accomplish their goals. While the communities do have CSS employees that come once a week to check up, many tasks are left for the residents to complete. This group responsibility builds valuable team working skills and transforms the camp into a community. Each community has things like a common kitchen, food storage, wood fire stoves, a solar charging station for devices, porta-potties, and raised platforms for tents and Conestoga Huts. 

To further support individual residents, peer support workers come once a month to help residents get past personal barriers and assist in obtaining essential things like an ID or a birth certificate. DeBuhr summarizes what the camps are meant to accomplish: “the two main goals of the program are to help people stabilize and do well behaviorally in the program. And then also on the other side, help them move forward with whatever the stated goals are.” 

In the past seven years CSS has grown to 155 huts spread between 14 different sites. The city of Eugene has helped them on this journey through various grants. For example, recently CSS was granted one million dollars of funding from the city and the county to expand their work. DeBuhr’s vision for the future includes starting what he calls “messy camps” which gives an opportunity for the harder-to-serve homeless population to camp legally while giving a small layer of support and monitoring things like hygiene levels. He hopes these communities will be treated like campuses, giving opportunities for training within the program. This training could be various things such as communication skills, dealing with mental issues and stress, and maybe even job training. 

DeBuhr’s progress and work in his fight against homelessness has given over 650 people an opportunity. CSS offers a unique and much needed hand in getting people off of the streets by giving anyone a chance, regardless of their past. CSS communities are giving residents the social skills, tools, and mindset to aid them on their climb up the ladder to a positive future. More importantly, CSS provides blueprints to other cities worldwide that are struggling with homelessness by providing hut manuals and consultation. Homelessness is a complex problem that will require innovative and unique solutions. Advocacy groups like CSS prove that true impact often arises from solutions provided at the community level.