It Takes a [Dignity] Village
by M.R. Lee
Editor’s Note: the article is long; you may want to print it
The way we treat homeless people in this country reminds me of how
we treated leftovers growing up. Too guilty to throw them out (good
Lutheran family) we put them in containers and in the refrigerator.
The next day and the next (uneaten) they slowly moved to the back of
the shelf. Then in a week or two the inevitable happened: they began
to smell and mold so then (and only then) it OK to throw them out. No
guilt involved. We were throwing out rotten food. This cycle kept repeating
itself despite our best efforts.
The shelter system says we’re too guilty to let homeless die on the
streets of hypothermia (we’re good Christian people) and it wouldn’t
look good (we are the richest country in the world) but that’s it–after
that they are saved from freezing they are completely forgotten. The
shelters give them a bed eight hours from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. in the
winter. Enough to keep them alive, but dying in every other way. It’s
hard on your health to be out in the snow or rain at 5:30 a.m. and nothing
is open yet. You get sick, you drink, you eat poorly. The whole process
wears you out so you get rundown and sick and then it’s OK if you die.
You were sick.
But now there is another alternative. The idea came from the homeless
themselves. Tent cities. Seattle has one and the one in Portland is
called “Dignity Village.”
Dignity Village is a community of tents located on N.W. Savier Street
and 18th Avenue. It is a formerly empty lot under the Freemont Bridge.
There are no residential buildings, just parking lots and recycling
centers as neighbors. You can see why– it’s so noisy at times
you have to ask a person to repeat himself or herself several times
while they are standing right next to you. Despite this, a real community
has evolved. There are some fifty tents and on an average eighty people
that live here. The village has moved (not by their own choice) several
times since it began in December of last year. They have portable toilets,
a sun shower and a kitchen with three stoves under a large tent. Under
fire laws they burn only propane or white gas.
Dignity Village formed because there are not enough beds in the shelters
of Portland. “ 600 for 3,000 people,” John Hubbard writes
in the Oregonian on June 9, 2001. There are also people that won’t go
to a shelter because they have a pet or pets, or are married or are
afraid of the violence.
On my first visit to Dignity Village I walked around and immediately
identified with the place. As an artist and a writer, often called a
misfit, often living in substandard housing and unable to find a job–I
totally identified with them.
I lived in my car for a month once, and occasionally slept out in public
places. Once I was roused in the middle of the night by a policeman
with a flashlight in my eyes told to move on. I looked around me. Nothing
but space around me I was completely distraught. I wondered, all this
space and nowhere to lie down for a few hours? It left me with a bitter
bitter taste in my mouth.
So Dignity Village appealed to me. Space to rest and space to heal.
Unfortunately, Dignity Village may not have time for that healing. The
city has ordered that by July 1st they must either find a new location
(it must be private) or else they will all, men and women, several people
in wheel chairs, will be put out on the street with their belongings.
Shelters are closed in the summer.
You would think they would at least give them until September 1, knowing
As I watch the activities of the village I notice all have jobs in the
camp. Some have outside jobs as well. Someone is on security duty 24
hours a day. As an outsider that’s the first person I meet. Another
person accepts donations. Some are cleaning the kitchen. There is a
community board and events going on during the day are written there.
Ibrahim Mubarak is the leader of the camp. He runs a tight ship and
people respect him. There are rules at the village: no drinking, no
drugs and no stealing or other harmful behaviors. People visiting the
village must check in with security and there are limits as to how many
people the village can house. Each tent must be five feet away from
the other tents.
Ibrahim is from Chicago and a former gang member. He has seen a lot
in his life, but attributes his survival to Islam, which he embraced
about six years ago. He says Islam stands for peace. He came to Portland
about three years ago and worked for Fujitsu in Hillsboro that subsequently
laid off about 280 people, including him. He was homeless and first
went to the shelters. He said he was treated like a piece of scum in
the shelters and that they were dirty and crowded. They did not respect
his Islamic traditions and he was not allowed to pray in his own way.
He then slept in the streets.
He had a job and an apartment when one of the originators of Dignity
Village asked him to take on a leadership role. Feeling he could not
do it and live in an apartment he went to live in the village where
he could lead “not from books but from what he knows in his heart.”
Since the July 1st deadline has been threatened to be a sort of ENDGAME
confrontation (according to Street Roots– they have already moved several
times) I asked him why they couldn’t stay where they are.
“It’s money,” he says. The institutions and organizations
(many religious) get money to buy mattresses and for heat and electricity.
They recently received $180 million to divide amongst themselves. If
they have no homeless they don’t get the money. This is the kind of
entrenched power that sticks to the program no matter how it fails.
But if it’s not working, as many agree, then don’t the taxpayers
deserve a chance to try alternatives? We say we value initiative and
independence in this country. Now we have a group that shows those qualities.
It’s time to support them against entrenched powers.
“What about the land you are on right now?” I ask.
Ibrahim tells me, “they were thinking of making it into a parking
lot. Vera Katz is talking about making it into a park for people to
take their dogs.” There are a lot of upscale condos in the area
(Mayor Katz has not visited Dignity Village.)
He says the place is proven to be effective. Many people work now from
the village. I saw one man leave for his job and a woman return from
her job at McDonalds. He said since December thirty four people have
found work and left to live in their own apartment.
Robert is a slender man with sandy colored hair and a straightforward
midwestern style about him. He is on security duty when I arrive. Originally
from Cleveland he has no family in Portland. Up until a month ago he
was a self-employed painter and had a nice apartment. Then he said he
had “an accident.” I learned it was hardly at accident. Someone
brutally mugged him on the street and beat him within inches of his
life. The perpetrator had just been released from prison. Robert was
treated and turned out of the hospital alone and he and didn’t even
know where he was. He was lucky. He ended up in Dignity Village. We
talked a little about the July 1 deadline. He said, “I’m not worried
about myself so much, but what about the women? I worry about the women.
It’s not safe out there on the streets.”
Victoria sits cross-legged in front of her tent. She is slender, with
short dark hair and an engaging smile, wearing athletic clothes. Her
tent is low to the ground like most and covered with blue tarps as are
most of the tents here. Rain has been a major problem. She has a white
puppy in her lap and her cat Chaos sits on a chair next to her. She
tells me that Chaos was the first pet in the camp and he was in the
parade. They had a fifty shopping cart parade to get awareness of the
camp. “They are my children. I don’t have children, so my pets
are my children. I would do anything to keep them.” Victoria would
have to give up her pets to even sleep one night in a shelter.
As we talk about her pets a man steps out of his tent next door. He
says to Victoria, “I’m going to work. Could you watch the dog?”
She nods and we hear a bark from inside the tent. “There are a
lot of pets in the camp,” she says. It seems by helping each other
they can hang on to the things that matter most.
“What about July 1st?” I said.
“We bought a car for $85.00.” She says. “We’re thinking
about what to do,” (in case they close the camp July 1st). The
fear of the July 1st deadline has affected everyone. Yet life goes on.
The camp seems to thrive and there are the people chatting and coming
and going. The hum of everyday life and a feeling of freedom and happiness.
Unusual in this day and age. I don’t see it in my own neighborhood that
is for sure. Most of our neighborhoods are vacant during the day. A
ghostly silence pervades.
WHY DIGINITY VILLAGE IS BETTER THAN THE SHELTER
1. There is a community– people that care about you and will help you
and protect you from harm. (They have 24 hour security)
2. Pets are allowed. For some this is the only family they have. Their
pets are their children.
3. Married people and partners can stay together.
4. Restaurants can come to them with leftover foods. That would be
impossible if people were on the streets.
5. There is continuity. They can leave their belongings there during
the day to go out for job interviews etc. Living in shelters they have
to carry all their belongings with them. They have to hide them in the
bushes during interviews or risk having everything stolen.
6. They have a phone number at Dignity Village. If you look for a job
you need a phone number and address.
7. They keep sober or drug free because their conditions are such that
they don’t relapse. They get to their meetings.
8. They can worship they way they want. They are free to do their own
religion. In shelters they must often pray and listen to sermons of
the religion of the shelter.
9. They work to help themselves and build self-esteem. Having others
do for you all the time is debilitating.
10. Dignity Village doesn’t close in the summer.
The most debilitating thing about homelessness is that you can never
rest. You’re always on the run. It’s like you’re out in this choppy
sea being tossed and turned. Dignity Village is an island in a stormy
sea where people can stop and rest and get themselves together, laugh,
be happy, and pursue their goals. The shelter system is limited, at
best. It’s a shredded life preserver in cold and dark water. Many
people have been floating a long time. But they can’t float forever.
Why are we doing this? What have they (they houseless) done wrong? What
did Richard do wrong, being mugged and beaten? And Ibrahim getting laid
off. And John being in the war and losing his legs to diabetes? What
did I do wrong, for so much of my life in trying to do my artwork- others
their poetry? Or writing- Misfits? No. We are part of our society. And
the best part from what I see. Come to Dignity Village. Come to the
protest. Come on July 1st and be a part of it. The city is for everyone.
There is so much space! Will guilt rule you or compassion?
The Dalai Lama writes the one thing all religions have in common is
They could be your mother your daughter, your brother you friend. It
could be you.
To learn more and/or voice your opinion:
Gov. Kitzhaber (503)378-3111
Mayor Vera Katz 503-82304120
Commissioner Eric Sten 503-3589
Chief of Staff for Eric Sten Bob Durston 503-823-3599
Dignity Village Virtual www.outofthedoorways.org