Village of homeless seeks to stay together

Portland, Ore., officials try to break up community


PORTLAND, Ore. - Dignity Village, a tiny community on the northeastern edge of Portland, convened an emergency session of its legislature the other evening.

The 26 representatives present sat in a circle on ragtag chairs collected from garbage dumps and curbsides, near a wide puddle they call Lake Dignity. The chairman of the nine-member Dignity Village governing council was there, along with most department heads: the treasurer, the secretary and chairwoman of the tents and population committee, the security chairman, the trash and sanitation chairman, the toilet meister and the coffee meister.

They had an urgent item on the agenda: the uncertain future of their village, an encampment of more than 60 homeless people, living in tents or one-room shacks built of plywood, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting - anything that could be scavenged.

Dignity Village's residents describe it as a "self-governing urban village," and it is one of the nation's few government-sanctioned homesteads for the homeless. It rents land from the city, runs a nonprofit corporation, adopts an annual budget, has bylaws and an executive and legislative branch of government, and is working to create a court system.

But its permit for camping on city land is expiring, two years after city officials decided to rent an acre of public land for the encampment - a move that Portland Mayor Vera Katz acknowledged at the time might have sounded "absolutely crazy" when New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities were cracking down on their homeless residents.

Some officials say the village has overstayed its welcome. Its bid to buy a lot and build portable houses made of straw and clay fell through in August.

Still, the villagers, many of whom met more than three years ago when they were living in tents under an interstate highway bridge in Portland, said they were undeterred. The consensus at the legislative session was that whatever happened, as long as they remained homeless, they would stay together.

"We have something," said Jack Tafari, 57, chairman of the Dignity Village Council. "It's a lot better than nothing, but we're going to have more."

The city seems willing to let the villagers stay a few more months. The villagers plan to present a proposal by Oct. 15; city officials have agreed to postpone a final decision until then.

The Dignity Village Legislature - which includes anyone who lives there - will debate whether to try to stay put, on an asphalt lot at a city leaf-composting plant near the Portland Airport, and possibly expand.

But opposition is growing in Portland, where about 1,800 people sleep in shelters or on the streets. That number is growing along with the city's poverty rate, city officials say.

Critics say that Dignity Village is unsafe, that fire hazards abound, that the encampment, a 40-minute bus ride from downtown Portland, is too isolated. They say the city, which is absorbing about $15,000 annually in maintenance and rent costs, should funnel that money to other services for the homeless.

But Dignity Village has many loyal supporters, including Lee Larson, a retired transportation company executive. He gave residents an old airport shuttle bus to use as a library; he has paid the city $40,000, covering the residents' rent for the past two years; and he is determined that Dignity Village not disband.

"It's really kind of the American dream," said Larson, 62, who heard about the people when they were living under the bridge and wondered how he could help. "You have homeless people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps."

"I mean, they've done all this," he said during a visit to the village, pointing to the ramshackle structures, the windmill that provides electricity, their outdoor kitchen, the propane-heated showers, the portable toilets and the communal meeting area under a tarp, where couches are available for those without a tent or shack. "It's really neat, it's a neat thing."

Many at the encampment said they had no desire to abandon their dream. They have survived too much, including police sweeps under the bridge and confrontations with the City Council before the city legalized their camp. The ultimate goal, villagers said, is to create a workable model of self-sufficient villages for homeless people across the country.

Village life is better than sleeping on benches or in doorways or even in shelters, where they cannot store their possessions or keep pets, and where couples are split up, they say.

Dignity Village requires those who live there to look for work or go to school, said Brenda Howard-Gray, chairwoman of the tents and population committee. About 25 residents have full- or part-time jobs. Most villagers receive food stamps or other benefits. Some have mental illnesses or physical disabilities. Some are highly educated - there are a former nurse and an unemployed engineer - and only recently fell on hard times.

No matter what the city allows, residents said, they will continue to try to buy property.

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