Four years ago, Eden Village I opened its doors, becoming the first permanent housing project in Springfield for the chronically disabled and homeless.
Managed by The Gathering Tree, Eden Village I is a 4.25-acre community that offers 30 tiny homes off of East Division Street. Three of the village's residents have been a part of the community since its doors first opened in November 2018.
As neighbors have moved in and out over the years, the trio reflected on how they are each healthier, happier and doing better than before moving to Eden Village.
It's about the people
Originally from California, Teresa Ross moved to Missouri with a friend several years ago. Formerly, she was a school teacher.
Love is all Ross has for Eden Village residents and staff, who she said have allowed her to enjoy all aspects of life.
"I really don't worry about (anything)," Ross said. "Life is sweet. Life is beautiful."
Ross said her favorite part of Eden Village is the people, specifically her friend and fellow resident Vicky, Community Coordinator Kelbi Schlueter and Chief Visionary Officer Nate Schlueter. It's these people and her fellow neighbors who keep her at Eden Village.
In the upcoming weeks, Ross is visiting her family in Los Angeles to celebrate her mother's 80th birthday. While excited for the trip, Ross said she'll be eager to return to her home in Springfield.
Ross added that if she could take her friends with her, she'd consider moving, but if they can't tag along, she's not interested.
"If I could take Kelbi with me, Nate with me or Vicky with me, then I would go (anywhere)," Ross said with a laugh. "You'd have to put (them) in my pocket."
Another one of her close friends is Gary Boots, her neighbor and another one of Eden Village I's original residents.
"(Gary's) one of the ones I wouldn't trade," Ross said. "I don't care if he gets mad at me or I get mad at him, I wouldn't trade him."
The importance of taking the time to smell the roses (or the coffee)
For Boots, 63, his first experience with Eden Village was actually a month before he got settled in.
"My story was I never had a birthday party," Boots said. "I was 58 at the time, so (Eden Village) gave me a birthday party before I moved in."
Since then, Boots said Eden Village has given him the start to his "second life."
Though he was born and raised in Pennsylvania, Boots said Missouri, specifically Eden Village, is his forever home.
Boots lived unsheltered for 18 months before moving into Eden Village. Most nights, he slept in a sleeping bag out in the open. For him, falling asleep wasn't an issue, but keeping his belongings safe was.
"It feels good to be in a place now where your stuff isn't being stolen," he said. Like all Eden Village I residents, Boots lives in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom tiny home with a full kitchen, living room and porch. Walking through his front yard, visitors may be met by Flash, his dog. But they should also look out for his pepper plants.
When it came to getting settled in his tiny home, falling asleep soon became the issue. For the first six months, Boots could only fall asleep on the floor.
"You get used to concrete and grass," he said. "In order to fall asleep I had to get on the floor."
But today, Boots sleeps in his bed.
Reflecting on the year and a half he slept outside, Boots said he always felt watched and protected.
"Every night there were these two birds flying by and I was like, 'Birds don't fly at night,'" Boots said. "Every night for like six months they just kept flying by. I said, 'They're angels. They're protecting me.' Then when I got my house (at Eden Village), I was walking up the street here and there was this big bird flying past me and when it squawked I said, 'That's the same bird.' He flew across the field, came back and landed on top of the telephone pole. I got up to it and looked and it turned its head around and it was an owl. That's the bird that's been flying through the night and I haven't seen it since."
As a Christian, Boots associates owls with angels, as Archangel Jeremiel was said to often appear in the form of an owl, known for its wisdom and attention to detail.
While living at Eden Village, one of the biggest lessons Boots has learned is how to slow down.
"I set back now and don't rush to do anything, care about the daily time or make any promises," he said. "I do everything slow. They say take the time to smell the roses, but I say coffee. That's the way I live my life right now. Eden Village helped me slow down and enjoy my life."
A space of her own
Eight years ago, Nancy Lawrence spent each night in her car.
"I had been homeless for four years and sleeping in the car, taking care of my husband at the nursing home," Lawrence said. "(When) he passed away and (Eden Village co-founder) Linda Brown called me and asked me about moving here, I was so very excited."
A Springfield resident her entire life, Lawrence said Eden Village has not only given her a roof over her head but also a space to pursue her passion: art.
Lawrence's tiny home features an array of plastic canvas crafts, from heart-shaped magnets on her fridge to brightly-colored tissue boxes. She said she enjoys gifting her crafts to homeless individuals for holidays like Valentine's Day and Christmas.
Bingo and frequent dinners hosted by local churches in the community center are some of Lawrence's favorite activities put on for all Eden Village residents.
While Lawrence said she loves living at Eden Village I, she hopes she can move into her own home one day.
"The goal would always be for me to have my own house," Lawrence said. "I hope and pray about being in a house, instead of being in the small cottages that we have here because I could make more things if I had more space."
The future of Eden Villages
In November 2020, The Gathering Tree opened Eden Village II, located off of West Brower Street. This second tiny-home community includes 24 houses, community center and park. Within a month of its opening, Eden Village II was at full capacity.
Now, Eden Village III is in the works, located at 2419 W. High St. on a four-acre piece of land. This community is expected to include 36-44 duplexes. The Gathering Tree's end goal is to have five Eden Village locations throughout Springfield.
Also managed by The Gathering Tree is Revive 66 Campground, which provides overnight shelter for the homeless. The campground includes 52 solar-powdered teardrop campers. The campground opens at 8 p.m. daily and shelters are available for $10 a night.
In May, a group of Drury architecture students built a tiny home at the campground, which includes a full-sized bed.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Eden Village I residents reflect on importance of togetherness