Western Oregon church hosts residential huts in parking lot as part of its housing ministry

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 16, 2024
Conestoga hut

The three residential huts in the parking lot of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Springfield, Oregon, are shaped like the Conestoga wagons used on the Oregon Trail. Photo: Episcopal Church in Western Oregon, via YouTube

[Episcopal News Service] The parking lot at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Springfield, Oregon, has about 50 parking spaces, but with an average Sunday attendance of about 30, the congregation never fills the lot with cars.

“I wish we did,” the Rev. Nancy Gallagher, the rector, told Episcopal News Service. “Everything about us is small.”

Instead, the Western Oregon congregation fills the parking lot with hospitality. For the past decade, it has opened the lot to people who are temporarily unhoused and need a place to stay, often camping there in cars or RVs. In recent years, St. John the Divine has partnered with a local service agency to add semi-permanent housing in three residential huts set up in the parking lot.

Gallagher describes the huts as “shaped like the Conestoga wagons that came across the Oregon Trail.” The huts, in a small way, are helping to alleviate a problem that has intensified in recent years, in Springfield and other Oregon communities. The state reportedly has the fourth highest rate of homelessness in the country, with an estimated 18,000 people experiencing homelessness as of 2022.

The pervasiveness of homelessness reflects an underlying problem in Oregon, which is said to have one of the worst housing shortages in the United States. The think tank Up for Growth estimates that the state is 87,000 housing units short of what is needed, according to a 2023 report, while rising prices are making it harder for lower income residents to afford the homes currently available.

The city of Springfield maintains an overnight parking program, which authorizes faith groups and other organizations to offer space on their properties for a limited number of people to camp in vehicles as a temporary housing alternative.  The county government also helps direct people to local shelters for temporary stays, while connecting them with other services and assistance.

St. John the Divine has embraced the parking lot ministry as a way to serve its community, Gallagher said. “We feel very strongly that we should not be admirers of Jesus, but actual followers. When Jesus said feed my sheep, we think he meant actually take care of people.”

Through the residential huts, the congregation can effectively end homeless for three people at a time – living as residents at the church until they decide to move into longer-term, permanent accommodations. David England, a former resident, saw firsthand the ministry’s success in helping people in need.

“If you get them off the street and lead them in the right direction, you’d be surprised,” England said in a diocesan video about the ministry. “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it happen here.”

England moved into one of the huts in 2017 and lived there for more than six years, until he left in November 2023 to relocate to Cincinnati, Ohio. The residents of the other two huts at St. John the Divine have moved in within the last two years, Gallagher said.

Over the years, the congregation has upgraded the amenities for its parking lot residents, first by extending electricity to the huts and offering the residents access to the church, for cooking and use of the restrooms. The congregation also installed a shower and a washer and dryer for residents’ use. They help keep an eye on the property when church officials and parishioners aren’t there.

“We’ve become a community. We take care of each other,” Gallagher said.

The ministry’s partners are St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County and Community Supported Shelters, both based in the neighboring city of Eugene. The agencies refer people who need a place to car camp to St. John the Divine, and Community Supported Shelters provided the three huts.

“Conestoga huts are cheaper and easier to assemble than other individual shelters and tiny homes,” the agency says on its website. “These resilient structures emphasize keeping unhoused people dry and safe. Security is a crucial asset; too many people on the street lose their belongings.”

The three huts at St. John the Divine are among 252 set up around Lane County. The 6-by-10 huts each cost about $3,500. With 60 square feet of interior space, they can accommodate one twin bed and a lockable storage bin. The walls are insulated, so residents can live in them year-round. The curved roof rises to a peak ceiling height of 6 feet. Residents also have another 20 square feet of space on an outdoor porch.

Hut inside

The 6-by-10 huts are large enough to accommodate a twin bed and a lockable storage bin, along with the resident’s personal belongings. Photo: Episcopal Church in Western Oregon, via YouTube

It is no mansion. “You don’t have a whole lot of room for anything. It’s kind of hard to call your own,” England said in the video produced by the Episcopal Church in Western Oregon. Even so, “it’s a place to lay your head at night. … This is a start for a lot of people.”

Residents of the huts, after being referred by Community Supported Shelters, can stay as long as they like, while car campers typically stay at St. John the Divine for a few days or up to a month.

In the early years of the ministry, the congregation kept a long list of rules for people camping or living in the parking lot. For example, drugs and alcohol were forbidden. Church leaders soon realized that some of those rules were patronizing and unnecessary, Gallagher said. Now, residents who don’t misbehave, cause disturbances or draw complaints from the church’s neighbors are welcomed to remain.

“They’ve helped us live out a gospel life,” Gallagher said. “We’re really grateful to them.”

The congregation still has rules, but the current list is much shorter: Treat other people with respect. Never lay hands on another resident. Leave the space cleaner than you found it.

The fourth and final rule is no less important: “You must never, ever drink the last Diet Pepsi,” Gallagher said, “because that belongs to me.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.