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Oregon Inventor, 90, Turns His Genius to Sheltering Homeless People

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

By Ed Langlois

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — In a sturdy homemade woodshop amid filbert orchards not far from the Willamette River, the gears of 90-year-old Vern Stuewe’s mind crank all day.

“What does the world need most right now?” Stuewe often asks himself.

A longtime member of St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, Oregon, the inventor ruminated on the Gospels and observed the parks, paths and byways of this town 90 miles south of Portland, which in past years have been filled with the tents and tarps of people without homes.

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

One day in a grocery store parking lot in late 2020, he struck up a conversation with a woman who was homeless. She was sitting on the ground. He gave her $10, headed home and started drafting plans for the shelter.

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

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

Fine-tuned after Stuewe shared more conversations with homeless people in the Willamette Valley, the micro-shelter is made to be taken on the road or built en masse to create a village. Stuewe is seeking a manufacturer to take his plans and run with them. He spent about $800 on the prototype and figures a company could bring that cost down through volume.

Stuewe imagines the micro-shelters being made quickly, auto assembly line style. A great many could be manufactured at low cost, offering safe shelter for many, he said. He has created a manual for building the micro-shelter, including materials and precise measurements.

The nonagenarian grew up in Southern California with four younger sisters. He found peace by going outside and riding his bicycle day after day. He also was a dedicated Mass server.

He came of age in the U.S. Navy in the Korean War era, becoming a tinkerer and handyman in the engine rooms of seagoing landing craft.

Stuewe and wife Gladys have been wed for 70 years and have lived on Kiger Island south of Corvallis since 1968. They have six children — “Every one of them is first class,” Stuewe said — and a large, glorious team of grandchildren and great- grandchildren.

Invention is Stuewe’s longtime passion. He has designed a house that would stand up to tornadoes. An avid daily cyclist, he has built small trailers and designed long visors for his helmets. He assembled a contraption for filtering gold out of river rocks and has a collection of dozens of variously sized tripods. He constructed a pond on his property with waterfalls, fountains and fish feeding machines, all looked over by a statue of Mary and the baby Jesus.

His hands-on approach to life hasn’t been without cost: He is missing the end of the ring finger on his right hand.

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

He began a tree seedling container fabrication plant on his property in 1982. The business, Stuewe & Sons, did so well that it had to move to a bigger location and is still run by son Eric on a site east of Corvallis.

For now, Stuewe’s attention is solidly on getting his homeless shelters out onto the streets.

“Vern has been going on this four to five hours per day,” said Jonah Gates, a family friend who sometimes helps Stuewe in the shop. “He has been pouring his heart and his soul into this.”

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