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.” Continue reading