Building huts for the homeless in Sweet Home

As rain fell steadily outside on a gray April morning, Casey Valloni and Lewis Conn, students in Will Coltrin’s advanced construction class at Sweet Home High School, assembled and nailed together some carefully cut 2x4s.

Around them, other students busily worked on similar pieces, busily assembling front facades for what eventually will be Quonset-style huts that will be erected at the new homeless shelter site east of Bi-Mart.

Wyatt Aiello, left, and construction teacher Will Coltrin check dimensions on a wall frame prior to taking it outside to be installed in a hut.

Coltrin said the students were building frames, then putting siding on them and insulating them before attaching them to walls and floors already completed by students, which were sitting outside in the parking lot.

“I have eight huts completely ready to go up,” Coltrin told a small group of observers who came to see the operation. They included County Commissioner Will Tucker, Dr. Larry Horton and Jim Gourley of the Sweet Home Health Committee, City Council member Lisa Gourley, Sean Morgan, the homeless liaison for the Sweet Home Police Department, and Brock Byers and Shirley Byrd of the Family Assistance and Resource Center.

The plan is to locate the huts, over the next month, on the roughly 2.6-acre site donated earlier this month by the county to FAC for a community outreach and resource center located behind the city Public Works yard at the north end of 24th Avenue.

Work was under way last week on a new gravel driveway leading from 24th Avenue behind the Public Works headquarters to the shelter site. City staff had cleared brush, leveled the property and were applying a layer of gravel to the site.

The approximately 6- by 14-foot huts, which include a small entry deck, are built of wood sections constructed by the students, who started the project in mid-February, Coltrin said.

“We started cutting out the walls and putting those together, and the floors, and did all the modular pieces and then we just started putting insulation in and the siding on.”

The huts’ roofs, which will be about 7 feet above the floors, will be curved cattle panels covered with two layers of plastic and an inch of insulation. One end wall of each hut has a door, the other a window.

April 20 was the first day the walls actually went up, Coltrin said.

“The kids are really excited. The excitement is ratcheted up now that we actually can start to see what they’ve been working on. We’ve been building pieces and parts for so long that they’re like, ‘How are these things going to go together?'”

Senior Brady Woodard said the project was “pretty cool” to work on the project.

Larry Horton, left, and Will Coltrin discuss features of a new hut being constructed for the homeless.

“What we’re doing here is making these huts for people around Sweet Home who are homeless, helping them out, stay warm. I hope this project continues, even after I’m gone.”

“It’s definitely a lot more like real-world issues, stuff like that, instead of just building tiny projects,” said classmate Wyatt Aiello, who said he’s interested in getting into the construction field after high school.

“I think this is the most advanced thing I’ve done in a construction class,” Woodard said, noting that this is the third he’s taken in high school. “This is giving me some good experience for the real world.”

Principal Ralph Brown said he “couldn’t be happier” with the project.

“We figured it was a wonderful service learning opportunity for our students to actually get them doing some real application of their skills,” he said. “It’s just a great opportunity for our kids to give back, and we were very thrilled to be part of that.”

Horton came up with the idea, the others said. The retired Sweet Home schools superintendent has been heavily involved in finding solutions for the community’s homeless population and with fellow Rotary Club members helped construct platforms at the homeless camp that was set up in the winter of 2020-21 behind the Church of the Nazarene.

Horton was one of a contingent of Sweet Home residents and officials who traveled to Walla Walla, Wash., last summer to view that community’s homeless site.

“They were in huts that we thought we could build ourselves,” he said. “We contacted the high school and asked if they might be interested in perhaps joining in on trying to build some of these huts.”

Horton said they got plans from Eugene, where similar huts, called Conestoga huts, have been installed at the Good Samaritan Society’s Eugene Village at 3500 Hilyard St.

“We bought the plans from them and brought the plans to Will and he looked at them and said, ‘Oh yeah, this is something my class can do. This would be perfect.”

Backers of the effort to create the huts, prefabbed sections of which can be seen in the background, which will soon be moved to the homeless shelter facility on 24th Avenue, include, from left, County Commissioner Will Tucker, City Councilwoman Lisa Gourley, Jim Gourley of the city Health Committee and Brock Byers of the Family Assistance and Resource Center, which will administer the facility.

Horton said the plan is to have huts at Sweet Home’s 24th Avenue site within a couple of weeks, with more following shortly thereafter.

“Eventually, we hope to have 30 of these huts on the site,” he said.

Lumber for the project was donated by Weyerhaeuser Corp., Horton said.

Wyatt Aiello, left, and construction teacher Will Coltrin check dimensions on a wall frame prior to taking it outside to be installed in a hut.

Ken Haines, whose family has operated Hardwood and Plywood Specialty and Western Resource Trading Corporation in Albany, donated “all kinds of materials” and provided others at cost, Byers said. “He’s been an incredible resource.”

Plus, the FAC recently received a $30,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation to help prepare the site.

Tucker, a commissioner who is frequently seen in Sweet Home and who has been an outspoken supporter of the property transfer process, said seeing the huts materialize and the property being prepared for occupation was gratifying after a drawn-out process with the Sweet Home City Council.

“It may have been more difficult than it needed to be, but the end result is that we’re getting the project done,” he said. “For me to see the first one stood up here is pretty exciting.”

Woodard said it will be gratifying to see the huts on the site.

“It will definitely feel good being able to drive by and see stuff I’ve helped create, help out the community here,” he said