In a tiny house village, Portland’s homeless find dignity

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On a frigid morning in Portland, Oregon, a tour through Dignity Village follows the same path its residents are required to travel. All were, or are, homeless.

Newcomers to this homeless refuge huddle in the warming station, a small portable building with photos of smiling former residents and where they are required to stay during a 60-day probationary period.

They hope to graduate to a small, makeshift home like Karen, a three-month resident whose boisterous laugh carries through the village.

Should it become a permanent home, they may find themselves in the position of Rick Proudfoot, a longtime resident who works in the site’s main office, keeping track of finances.

If they’re really lucky, they may end up like Lisa Larson, Dignity Village’s CEO.

A peppy 40-something, she’s lived at Dignity Village the last six years after falling into homelessness to escape an abusive husband. She initially thought she’d stay no more than a few months. Today, Larson, who has been in her position for a year, can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“There’s a real sense of pride here, a real sense of community that you don’t find elsewhere,” she says.

Called an “intentional community” by its members and a homeless encampment by outsiders, Dignity Village is a step toward curbing Portland’s skyrocketing homeless population.

Located in northeast Portland, Dignity Village is a self-governed, gated community that currently serves 60 people on any given night — the city limits the number — and provides shelter in the form of tiny houses built mainly from donated and recycled materials.

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Dignity Village housing structures built mainly from recycled material by residents.Paul Dunn

The village emerged in the winter of 2000 as a tent city called Camp Dignity. Stationed in downtown Portland, it served as an act of protest against Portland’s then-existing ban on homeless encampments.

But it moved. After more than a year of public controversy, the city sanctioned a permanent campsite on Sunderland Yard, city-owned land six miles west of Portland International Airport.

The village has resided on this site since 2004, when advocates and officials reached a compromise on a location after contentious negotiations, but there are no more tents.

Now officially a nonprofit, Dignity Village is governed by a democratically elected council of nine residents, who are responsible for day-to-day decisions; all residents can vote on big decisions, like whether to remove a resident or enter into contracts with service providers, in town-hall-style meetings. On a typical night, it provides food, housing, bathrooms and a mailing address for nearly 60 adults, who pay $35 a month in rent and would otherwise be taking their chances alone, sleeping on park benches or city streets.

This is why community may be Dignity Village’s most essential offering.

“It’s really what sets [the community] apart from other homeless shelters and encampments, above all else,” says Katie Mays, who works as a social worker at Dignity Village three days a week.

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Dignity Village CEO Lisa Larson with village newbies in the warming station.Paul Dunn

The village’s five rules help cultivate that sense of community: no violence, no theft, no alcohol or drugs within a one-block radius, no constant disruptive behavior, and all residents must contribute at least 10 hours per week of work for village upkeep.

No children are allowed at the village because background checks are not a requirement to stay there. Larson says this allows the village to avoid any problems that could arise if any resident, also known as a “villager,” were a registered sex offender or had a violent criminal history.

Seattle, which in November declared a state of emergency to tackle its own homeless crisis, recently moved to expand micro-housing communities for the chronically homeless; The Seattle Times cited Dignity Village as a huge influence on the city’s decision.

The city has its own problems with pervasive homelessness. The issue prompted Mayor Ed Murray to deliver a rare televised address on Tuesday. Moments before he went on air, two people were killed and three others wounded in a shooting at a homeless encampment in the city’s Sodo district.

Murray recently met with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales to discuss how their cities are grappling with homelessness. On Tuesday, he called on the city council to provide an additional $49 million to increase services for Seattle’s roughly 3,000 homeless, which would include additional campsites. The city already spent $50 million on homelessness last year, the most in its history.

Elsewhere, cities are trying out the model of Dignity Village. In Eugene, Oregon, Opportunity Village has lifted the concept wholesale. Like Dignity Village, it is mostly self-governed, its residents are required to adhere to the same five rules, and tiny homes dot its landscape.

“We didn’t feel it was necessary to reinvent the wheel,” says Andrew Heben, project director for Square One Villages, which partially funds the Eugene development.

Heben, whose book, "Tent City Urbanism," frequently cites Dignity Village as a model for sustainable housing for the homeless, says there are a few key differences between the two, pointing to one in particular: Dignity Village allows its residents to be members of their nonprofit entity, which can lead to logistical challenges.

“Since many residents eventually transition out of there, that means new people can completely undo rules that others have put in place,” says Heben.

In contrast, Opportunity Village is overseen by a separate board consisting of residents, clergy, and other community members.

Dignity Village’s influence also has spread to Nashville, where a micro-housing community called Sanctuary has cropped up. In a recent Al-Jazeera report, residents said Sanctuary provides them with “dignity, security and a place to plot their futures.”

What the residents of these communities hold in common are the bonds forged from shared experience — of finally finding a welcome environment after being discarded and stigmatized by larger society.

The homeless population in Portland has steadily increased since 2007, even while national rates have dropped by 11 percent during the same period. The Oregonian has characterized it as a problem “spinning out of control.”

The city estimates that 4,000 men, women and children are without shelter most nights in Multnomah County. The image of people emerging from tents and napping on benches is often the first one to greet visitors outside the city’s train station.

Although city and county officials have recently pledged more than $30 million to combat homelessness, the situation persists.

“We’re victims of our own success,” says Josh Alpert, Hales' chief of staff.

Alpert says Portland’s problems stem from three major issues: housing demand that exceeds supply; rising rent prices in response to an influx of new residents; and a lack of financial resources to dedicate to the homeless population.

The city has at least 17 dedicated shelters for the homeless. One of its newest, the eight-story Bud Clark Commons, was built by the city in June 2011 and houses about 150 people. It cost taxpayers $47 million, a price tag that continues to anger some residents and business owners.

Portland’s city council recently approved $1 million for a new shelter.

The dilemma has forced city officials to consider new approaches and revisit old ones that have proved successful.

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Residents walk through the village on a cold day.Paul Dunn

One has been its partnership with Dignity Village, which began three years after the village officially became a nonprofit in December 2001. Today, the collaboration is all the more attractive to a cash-strapped city: The village’s annual operations amount to just $27,750.

Besides granting public land, the city provides funding for a dedicated social worker, Mays, to help members with job searches, resume writing, and transportation to medical and counseling appointments. Mays also functions as a liaison to the city.

Dealings between Dignity Village and the city haven’t always been smooth, though.

“We’ve been in a constant state of anxiety with the city,” says Proudfoot.

The city has imposed rules, such as the two-year limit on how long a resident can stay, for example. And, Proudfoot says, there’s always the possibility that the city could reclaim the village's land.

Many Dignity Village members would prefer no interaction with the city, Proudfoot says, because they find its system too bureaucratic and hard to navigate, which they blame for leaving many of them to sleep on the pavement prior to become villagers.

But they view the city’s involvement as necessary to reach their goal of owning land where members can build permanent settlements, not just tents and make-do tiny homes.

Officials, meanwhile, view the village as transitional housing, wanting people to stay there only as long as it takes them to find permanent residences. The city instituted its two-year maximum stay as part of the partnership, (Larson estimates the average member’s stay is between 24 and 36 months) something the city has been unable to enforce.

“The problem is there’s no housing for people to go to, and the city doesn’t have another plan,” says Proudfoot.

Portland’s current affordable housing shortage is estimated at about 42,720 units. When subsidized units do become available, people most often are required to compete in a lottery for them. The shortage also extends to rental units, prices for which have risen at the sixth-fastest rate in the nation. When rentals do come on the market, they’re often snatched up by the highest bidder, a predicament that has sent much of the city’s working poor scurrying for places to live.

Alpert says the city is attempting some innovative ideas, including replicating the village, because it's one of the best (and cheapest) bets to curb homelessness, at least for now.

“Dignity Village sits well with what the city is attempting to do. We’ve had 15 years to study it,” says Alpert.

As other cities look to Dignity Village, Alpert has some advice: Be mindful of location.

“A lot of infrastructure goes with being homeless,” he points out. He notes a problem with creating another Dignity Village is trying to find land close to social services and public transportation for its population.

Proudfoot, for one, hopes that, in time, the village will become known for more than just its tiny homes.

“We built [the tiny homes] in hopes of being able to put them on a flatbed one day and move them to land of our own,” he says.

Meanwhile, the village continues to save money — about $2,000 so far — to build larger and more permanent structures on a site not owned by the city. And members look forward to the day when a tour of Dignity Village will take place on land collectively owned by its residents. They’d have another word for it.


This story was originally published by YES! Magazine, a nonprofit publication that supports people’s active engagement in solving today’s social, political, and environmental challenges. 

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