Street Roots editorial from May 15, 2008
Dignity Village II? Why not? It would take a special set of circumstances to create another tent city or semi-permanent, off-the-grid community, but it’s not altogether out of the question.
The Dignity Village model has been heralded as a success by many, and communities nationwide have looked to it as a model to emulate. Critics say the village is dangerous because it doesn’t always meet housing and fire codes, but the idea that homeless folks are safer sleeping alone in a doorway or under a bridge is disturbing.
City Hall says all options are on the table for providing housing and helping people experiencing homelessness, but we all know that’s political speak. The chance that the city, left to its own devices, would duplicate a community like Dignity Village is slim to none.
It’s not that our current city council wouldn’t have the heart to put together such a package. It’s more that they don’t have the capacity to deal with the public relations blowback that would occur.
As one city official told Street Roots anonymously, “Finding a place to put a large group of homeless folks is a nightmare. There’s the neighborhood groups and businesses that don’t want public housing in their area, much less a homeless camp.”
Plus, the local media would most likely turn such an effort into a circus. Most newspapers in town didn’t support the first Dignity Village, and Street Roots assumes that hasn’t changed. Nationally, every newspaper from the New York Times to USA Today would flock to Portland to cover a duplication effort.
It might seem logical for our elected leaders to think outside the box and be progressive on these issues, but the risk is too high. They’d face accusations that Portland is too soft on the homeless, or that they’re enabling poor people.
But if the city won’t do it, maybe a steadfast group of concerned people should plant a new tent city themselves. If they harness the media attention and are on-target with their messaging, they could force Portland to become not only the nation’s first city to sanction a semi-permanent community for the homeless, but the first to duplicate it.
The atmosphere is ripe for such a move. Arguments over the sit-lie ordinance have distraced from the larger issue: the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness. Not that we think sit-lie isn’t a civil rights issue, because it is. It’s just that the conversation today is being played out more in the media than on the ground. At the same time, thousands of park exclusions continue to be given out by private police, the camping ordinance is still in motion and the police sweep neighborhoods at will — and there’s little anyone can do about it.
Instead of playing defense, maybe concerned citizens, community organizations and people living on and off the streets should assert their own rights. Considering the current economic climate, Street Roots could see people rallying behind another Dignity Village. Why not?
Photo by Ken Hawkins