Oregon inventor, 90, shelters his genius from the homeless

Vern Stuewe, 90, of Corvallis, Oregon, poses for a photo Jan. 21, 2022, next to his prototype mobile homeless shelter. He spent a year designing the sturdy, inexpensive living quarters. (Photo: CNS /Ed Langlois, Catholic sentinel)

By Ed Langlois

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — In a sturdy, home-made carpentry workshop amid hazelnut orchards not far from the Willamette River, the gears of 90-year-old Vern Stuewe’s mind spin all day.

“What does the world need most right now? Stuewe often wonders.

A longtime member of St. Mary’s parish in Corvallis, Oregon, the inventor meditated on the gospels and observed the parks, paths and alleys of this town 90 miles south of Portland, which in recent years have been filled with tents and tarps of people. without houses.

Just over a year ago, Stuewe set out to design a better mobile shelter, marked by respect for human dignity.

One day, at the end of 2020, in the parking lot of a grocery store, he strikes up a conversation with a homeless woman. She was sitting on the ground. He gave her $10, went home, and started writing plans for the shelter.

“I got to thinking, ‘What’s the solution? “, Stuewe told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. “All I know is that they need something more solid. It’s kind of a partial solution for people who live out there in the weeds. It’s better than a tent.

Meticulously designed for efficiency and comfort, Grandpa Vern’s prototype homeless shelter has the look of a lightweight wooden Conestoga wagon, including a waterproof canvas tarp that can be removed to leave enter the sun. The house on wheels is 6 feet wide and 10 feet long with a bunk, table and fold-out porch cover. Two people can move it easily, even pushing it on wooden rails in a trailer.

Tweaked after Stuewe shared more conversations with homeless people in the Willamette Valley, the micro-shelter is made to be taken down the road or built en masse to create a village. Stuewe is looking for a manufacturer to take their blueprints and run with them. He spent about $800 on the prototype and thinks a company could reduce that cost through volume.

Stuewe imagines that the micro-shelters are made quickly, like an automatic assembly line. Many could be made at low cost, providing safe haven for many, he said. He created a manual for the construction of the micro-shelter, including materials and precise measurements.

The nonagenarian grew up in Southern California with four younger sisters. He found peace by going out and biking day after day. He was also a dedicated mass server.

He came of age in the United States Navy around the time of the Korean War, working as a handyman and handyman in the engine rooms of maritime landing craft.

Stuewe and his wife Gladys have been married for 70 years and have lived on Kiger Island south of Corvallis since 1968. They have six children – “Everyone of them is first class,” Stuewe said – and a tall and glorious team of grandchildren and great – grandchildren.

Invention is Stuewe’s long-standing passion. He designed a house that would withstand tornadoes. An avid everyday cyclist, he built small trailers and designed long visors for his helmets. He has assembled a contraption to filter gold from river rocks and has a collection of dozens of tripods of various sizes. He built a pond on his property with waterfalls, fountains and fish-feeding machines, all dominated by a statue of Mary and the infant Jesus.

His practical approach to life has not been without cost: he is missing the tip of the ring finger of his right hand.

But it’s worth it: “If you don’t keep busy, you go crazy,” Stuewe said.

He started a tree seedling container factory on his property in 1982. The business, Stuewe & Sons, was so successful that it had to move to a larger location and is still run by his son. Eric at a site east of Corvallis.

For now, Stuewe’s attention is firmly on getting out of his street homeless shelters.

“Vern does this four to five hours a day,” said Jonah Gates, a family friend who sometimes helps Stuewe around the store. “He put his heart and soul into it.”


Langlois is editor of the Catholic Sentinel, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

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