Dignity Village today

Chaz

Dignity Village has battled through a turbulent past to arrive where it is today. Starting as a group of eight men and women who pitched five tents on public land nearly nine years ago, the village today is a far cry from a tent city that came to symbolize the struggle of people experiencing homelessness — not only in Portland, but around the country.

“I wouldn’t call them a tent city,” says Sally Erickson, who oversees Portland’s 10-year plan to end homelessness with the Bureau of Housing and Community Development. “I would call them a community.”

“I think it has been a social experiment that illustrates what people with little to no resources were able to pull together to create a healthy and functioning community,” says Wendy Kohn of Kwamba Productions, which is putting together a documentary about the group over the past decade.

“At so many points along the way, they could have failed,” Kohn goes on to say. “It could have flamed out and become an example of a group of people trying to do something positive and coming up short — like so many times throughout history. Instead we see, over a ten-year period, a group of people who haven’t failed and are still recreating themselves through a democratic process.”

News organizations around the country reference Dignity Village as a sidenote when they write about the growing number of tent cities in the United States. Typically summed up in a sentence or two, the village is described as a success. To the local public in Portland, however, Dignity Village has seemed fairly quiet — yet that’s a far cry from the truth.

Last year alone, the village had more than 1,000 visitors — mostly housing activists, students, faith-based community members, policy wonks and politicians from five continents and eight countries.

Erickson says she takes calls from all over the country from city governments and other parties interested in the village.

Erickson points them to the Tent City Toolkit, an interactive DVD the village created with Kwamba Productions. The toolkit takes individuals on the streets through the step-by-step process of turning a tent city into a semi-permanent community through direct action. That a city official would promote tent city information at all may mean that even at the government level, our city is more progressive than most.

“I tell them Dignity Village was and is unique,” says Erickson. “It wasn’t like the city just created a tent city. (Dignity Village) fought for everything they have, but they also created a non-profit after realizing the political dynamics involved and overcame many obstacles. Dignity Village should be proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

Kohn agrees. She says Portland is lucky to have had the personalities on the streets that it did when the village was born.

“(The organizers) were politically and socially sophisticated,” says Kohn. “After the city realized they weren’t going away under any circumstances, (the city) began to create an absence of barriers, so to speak, and waited to see if the village would fail or be successful. Today there’s a new generation carrying that same spirit on and (they) are doing remarkably well.”

Dignity Village today

“Dignity has helped me reach out and deal with the violence in my life,” says Bob Sterling, who has been at the village for nearly five years. “I would have ended up killing someone or robbing them if it wasn’t for this place.”

Sterling, who has been clean and sober for three years, is set to move out of the village and into a home in Newport, Ore. this week.

“It’s like a family, and I’m going to miss them,” Sterling said. “But it’s time. I’ve come a long way to deal with my anger. It’s time for someone else to start a new life again, like I was able to do.”

Butted up against a bustling compost facility directly to the West and a state prison to the South, the village is a small piece of paradise for those who call it home. At regular intervals, jets can be heard taking off and landing from the airport nearby.

Currently, 58 individuals and couples live at the village on a 1.3-acre plot of land known as Sunderland Yard. The village also allows for a hand full of guests to stay and has a waiting list ranging from 15 to 25 people at all times. According to villagers 18-months is the average stay.

Decisions at the village are made by its membership committee, a rotating group of 34 individuals who oversee day-to-day activities and set the goals for the larger group.

“Each person has to work 10 hours a week,” says Joe Palinkas, who handles public relations and oversees work projects. “We don’t assign people to things — they can choose for themselves — but each person does have to put in 10 hours a week at something.”

Structures

There are currently 43 structures at Dignity Village that can be inhabited. Each 120-square foot structure, which is lifted 18 inches off the grond, comes with a bed and propane stove. The vast majority of structures are made out of recycled material, including several created from a mud-and-straw mixture known as “cob.” There’s also a community commons, where villagers are able to gather and hold meetings.

Many of the structures also have a small porch and an area for raised beds, so residents can garden. The village has a community garden as well, with more than a dozen raised beds that serve the entire village. The community garden is maintained by volunteers who live at the village, growing vegetables and flowers for the group to use and sell.

“The raised beds help us all mentally and physically,” says Palinkas. “It also helps feed us.”

Costs for the village hover around $4,000 a month. This includes paying for portable toilets, garbage hauling, building supplies, water, sewer, phone, Internet and insurance.

The city has granted the organization a three-year $25,000 grant to launch a series of micro-enterprises, including a hot dog cart that will be stationed at events throughout Portland this summer. The village also has a yard sale once a month at their location at Sunderland Yard.

The city has put an estimated $200,000 into Dignity Village so far, but according to Erickson, the village is now completely self-sufficient.

“I’m proud of how far we’ve come,” says village resident Laura Brown. “Look around. We are doing things for ourselves in a way that many people and critics didn’t think was possible. We owe a lot to the original organizers — they sacrificed for something that’s turning out to be a wonderful thing.”

In the beginning

“Have you heard the good news, homeless people? We are coming out of the doorways, coming out from under the bridges. We are setting ourselves up a tent city. We are coming in from the cold.” So wrote Jack Tafari, one of the original Dignity Village organizers, in Street Roots in November 2000.

The first meeting of the “Out of the Doorways” campaign was in October 2000. The village was born out of Street Roots and homeless activism because of the lack of shelter space in the city.

In December 2000, a group of eight men and women pitched five tents on public land — a muddy field beside the Broadway Bridge. They called it Camp Dignity, which later became Dignity Village. Two days later, the police and fire marshal forced them to leave. In what would become the first in a series of high-profile standoffs with the city, the group marched off to an industrial site under the Fremont Bridge with a shopping cart parade.

In the first few months, village members ran a series of articles, poems and opinion pieces in Street Roots to inform the general public about the camp and its goals. Street Roots became the organization’s fiduciary sponsor and would remain so for the next three years.

Within weeks, the camp had become a media phenomenon on television and radio stations throughout Portland and the nation. Images of people in wheelchairs and shopping cart parades were brought to people’s living rooms. The group’s tactics escalated with every relocation to gain more attention in the community. Most newspapers in Portland covered the campers as underdogs who had no true vision or way to sustain themselves. The Oregonian editorial board waged a campaign against the village.

“The first few weeks were both chaotic and exciting,” said Bryan Pollard, former managing editor of Street Roots and former spokesman for the village. “There was apprehension about how the police would respond, but we had contingency plans for a variety of situations. The police responded more gently than we expected, I suppose, partially because we had numbers and were obviously organized.”

The second site under the Fremont Bridge lasted five days, until the day after Christmas. In another shopping cart parade, the campers moved to the east waterfront, under the Morrison Bridge. The group lasted about three weeks in the cold of winter at the waterfront. They then moved to River Place on the Willamette River in January 2001, one year since the first tents were pitched.

The group agreed to leave River Place a week later after negotiating for a spot back under the Fremont Bridge. The group lasted there for nine long months before splintering into three factions.

One group went to Rancho Dignity, a forty-acre farm outside of Portland. Another group occupied a field near the French-American school on Naito Parkway, otherwise known as the Field of Dreams. That camp was swept on Sept. 11, 2001, and several members of the Homeless Liberation Front, a radical group in Portland that reclaimed public lands for the public use, were arrested for camping on public lands.

The third group went to Sunderland Yard, where Dignity Village currently resides. “We eventually all coalesced on Sunderland Yard, but the mood was very, very bitter about being driven out of town,” said Jack Tafari, one of the original organizers of the village.

“The first winter was hell at Sunderland Yard,” said Tim McCarthy, a one-time Dignity resident. “It was cold and nasty. The wind coming off the river in the winter is brutal. The first winter we were in tents. One of the reasons we starting building structures was because of the elements. Our tents were collapsing because of the weight of the water. We took control and starting building structures out of necessity.”

Three years later in 2004, after surviving three winters at Sunderland Yard, Dignity Village became the first city-sanctioned tent city after reaching a compromise with City Hall. It became a symbol of success on America’s homeless front.

The village would continue on under the radar for the next four years, working with various faith-based organizations, non-profits and individual volunteers who helped set into motion what the village has become today.

Testimony

“It was a relief to be able to take a breath from being homeless and surviving,” says Shirley Smith, describing her arrival at the village two months ago. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to survive as a woman on the streets. Being able to have a safe and supportive place to relax was a blessing I can’t really describe.”

Smith says she is a hard worker, and she enjoys contributing to the larger goal of the village. “It’s a step up from living in a constant state of fear. I feel very good about myself today.”

Street Roots talked to countless individuals who told similar stories.

Matt Demichele, 26, and his partner are both guests of the Village, currently on the waiting list to live there. Both products of the foster care system,

Demichele and his partner became homeless after he lost his job. “The idea that we had become homeless left us both in complete shock,” says Demichele. “Dignity Village has been a blessing in our lives. We’re hoping to be able to stop and rebuild our lives.”

Palinkas, who talked with Street Roots at length, told his story on a rainy morning last week at the village.

Palinkas worked for 28-years covering floors in Wilsonville, Oregon. He began to have problems with his sight. He was told he had developed glaucoma and needed to have surgery, but he had no insurance. He continued to work while his sight became worse and eventually had to walk away from the trade he loved.

He went on to work a series of minimum wage jobs while also providing for his partner, who has a disability. In 2006, when they could no longer afford housing, they were evicted and became homeless for the first time.

Palinkas and his partner did not want to be separated in the shelter system, so they found Dignity Village.

Last year Palinkas was able to get the eye surgery he needed, and now he oversees the building operations for the village.

“The village is a wonderful thing,” says Palinkas. “It’s a stepping stone for a better future, and we can change the lives of people around us in a positive way.”

Springtime

During Street Roots’ visits to the village during the past two weeks, the community was full of bustling and optimistic energy. Even in the pouring rain, more than a half-dozen workers could be seen stacking wood, getting building materials in order, and working on various projects around the site. Wintertime can still be brutal at the village, but the rainy season was coming to an end and there was work to be done.

“We have repairs and upgrades to make on 25 of the 43 structures at the village,” says Palinkas. “And we are also building the village’s first community center that will include a community kitchen, showers, a laundry room, a conference room and a community commons.”

Worker

The new community center will be 40 by 60 square feet and built mostly out of recycled material.

Last year, carpenters traveled as far away as Oklahoma and Kansas to spend time helping erect and repair structures at the village. The village expects volunteers and skilled laborers to help again this year.

Other projects for the summer include maintaining the vegetable garden and creating more micro-businesses for villages, including maintaining an eBay store on-line.

Asked by Street Roots if the village has thought about capitalizing on the hundreds of visitors Dignity sees annually by asking for suggested donations, a villager says, “Oh yes, we’ve thought about it.”

Asked if the village would be able to financially sustain itself, Palinkas says, “We’ll make it.”

The bigger picture

“We’ve had a lot of people and obstacles over the years, from bad press to long and brutal winters,” says Palinkas. “It makes us stronger.”

Palinkas goes on to say that Dignity Village has stayed together because of the will of the people to stay together.

In many ways, Dignity Village has become a national symbol of both struggle and dignity for people experiencing homelessness. When Palinkas is asked what that means to him, he says, “Knowing that what we do and how we maintain ourselves is something that goes beyond Portland motivates us.”

Asked if another model similar to Dignity could be replicated in Portland with the leadership at the village, Palinkas says, “To be honest with you, if the federal government walked through the doors today and asked us to help, we would have the ability to help them. We have a model, a vision and toolkit that lays out exactly how to replicate what we’ve done here.”

“We are a village,” says Sterling. “It saved my life and it’s going to save many more.”

Story by Israel Bayer

Photos by Ken Hawkins

For more information on how to create a tent city visit the Tent City Toolkit website.

5 responses to “Dignity Village today

  1. Pingback: Seattle’s tent city to move to permanent location « For those who can’t afford free speech

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  3. A very nicly done piece on Dignity Village Isreal! Great historical reference points and some information new to me about the three fractions. I didn’t know that. Have you thought about adding some of these facts to the Wikipedia page?

  4. Pingback: Right to Survive releases blueprints, continues to grow | For those who can’t afford free speech

  5. Pingback: 12/15 Edition: On The Subject of Connecticut, Culture Trauma, A Love Letter About Explaining God, an Email to Myself, My Life on Twitter, and a Note to Surveil | PROOF OF GOD! …and other tragedies…

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