The sound of wood being cut and hammered echoes into the parking lot of a small warehouse space in west Eugene. Walking inside yields a view of a small office space and around the corner the woodshop setup, with tools and wood lying about, and finally a tiny house on wheels.
The house’s dimensions are nine feet by five feet, with a fully functioning porch light, an interior light, wall outlets, a window and a lockable door. This seemingly magical workshop isn’t just any normal rented out space, but the building site of Carry It Forward’s Spot Shelters, tiny homes on wheels.
Carry It Forward, despite the extensive services it offers for homeless folks, had humble beginnings. Arwen Mass-DeSpain, the nonprofit’s founder, originally asked on Facebook for supplies to help people on the street survive an icy rainstorm in 2015. After collecting and dropping off the donations from her initial call, she continued to receive donations, and so she continued distributing them. Carry It Forward was officially formed after collecting and distributing an entire year after her original ask on social media, and since then, the nonprofit has grown significantly.
The Spot Shelter Project is just one of the many initiatives that Carry It Forward organizes. This one is in partnership with Connected Lane County, Pastor Gabe Piechowicz and Everyone Church, and it provides homeless folks with shelter and work development opportunities. Connected Lane County is a coalition of local organizations committed to supporting Lane County students. Piechowicz manages microsites for SquareOne Villages, a nonprofit that organizes tiny homes for folks in need of housing.
Each tiny home is designed by architect Alicia Ginsberg and built by Gabe Casteel, SquareOne Villages’ builder, together with the future shelter resident — a form of “sweat equity,” as Mass-DeSpain puts it, so the resident can work and gain building skills.
Other shelter-oriented programs that Carry It Forward partners with include Garden SPOT (Shelter Prioritizing Onward Traction) and Hope on Wheels. Garden SPOT is a 10-bed emergency shelter, providing housing with transitional services. Hope on Wheels purchases or accepts donated used RVs and restores them to provide housing for veterans and families and workforce development opportunities for shelter residents.
The nonprofit’s goal is to “reduce suffering by meeting basic human needs while developing a sustainable model for incorporating unhoused individuals in the work of helping themselves and the community,” according to its mission statement.
Other initiatives and services that Carry It Forward provides can fall into three categories: shelter care, emergency shelter and short-term emergency needs. Since folks can have a variety of challenges they may be facing, each person is helped by “meeting them where they’re at” and “trying to cultivate an environment to see their best as defined by them,” Mass-DeSpain says.
During the pandemic, most of the resources and other supporting organizations were closed and only recently reopened, exacerbating the needs of homeless folks for services that were readily available pre-pandemic. Carry It Forward’s operations were fortunately able to continue running through the pandemic and grew considerably: At the beginning of March 2020, there were 10 employees and by the end of that month there were 50.
“We have so many wanting to help now because these are low barrier resources, and right now has forced people to look at different perspectives and share different experiences meaningfully,” Carry It Forward co-director Kris McAlister says. He lived eight years on the street as a youth and since then has worked in the social justice sphere tackling homelessness, teen poverty and other issues.
One of the most overlooked basic needs, showering, is one of Carry It Forward’s better-known programs, and especially important through the pandemic. The WASH (Willamette Area Sanitation and Hygiene) program offers free showers and clean clothes a couple times a week behind Ebbert Memorial United Methodist Church at 6th and C Street in Springfield.
Once the COVID-19 vaccine was available for the general public to receive, Carry It Forward partnered with the church and Lane County Public Health to set the site up as a free COVID-19 vaccine station. The church serves as a day shelter at certain times, so setting up a vaccine station there “seemed to be the best place to meet people where they are with what they need,” Mass-DeSpain says.
“When we get to know people — and this is the key — homeless people are often lumped into one category as if there is one solution, but reality is that there are different needs,” Mass-DeSpain says. “So often it’s defined not by what they need but what they [the government] are willing to provide — so much is about personal dignity.”
The emphasis on providing workforce development opportunities is one of the long-term goals of Carry It Forward — the group seeks to empower homeless people to find avenues of stability and support for themselves, and get them off of the streets.
Find out more about Carry It Forward’s work at CarryItForward.net.