Pete Lewis is a Welsh writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. He is a volunteer reporter for Streetroots newspaper. He would welcome any comments at

CAMP DIGNITY: Portland's Homeless community fight to improve their living conditions.

Why does "America's most livable city" need a homeless camp

The United States is often regarded as "the wealthiest" country on earth. Obviously, it depends on how the term "wealth" is defined. When terms like "Gross National Product", "Gross Domestic Product Per Capita" are thrown around by economists then there is a clear argument for this statement. The US also makes its presence felt throughout the world, from showing its military might in the Middle East to introducing McDonald's to Moscow to Hollywood films dominating international cinemas. Consequently, people throughout the world have little problem in believing that the US is such a wealthy land, where the quality of life must surely exceed that of their own humble country and they often try to emulate that "wealth". As people throughout Asia, Africa, and South America increasingly risk their health in pursuit of American food, drink, cigarettes and lifestyle, such consumerism and hell-bent capitalism continues to impoverish hundreds of thousands of people in this country. The United States has one of the longest work weeks, no compulsory vacation days, no job security, an increasing reliance on "temp" work (with no benefits), has seen "real" wages decline since 1972, represses Union Rights and has no national health care. (Taken from Z Magazine July/August 1998) Furthermore, there is no real safety net for those who fall victim to these issues. When examining the "World's richest nation" from this perspective it becomes clear that the nation's wealth is being secured by breaking the backs of its poor. There should be no need for people to be living on the streets in the world's "wealthiest" nation but it comes as no surprise upon examination of where this wealth comes from and where it ends up. Towards the end of last year Portland Oregon was voted "America's most livable city" by Money Magazine. This announcement had a mixed reaction amongst the people of Portland. Some were proud and excited to be living in such a place, others feared that it would attract thousands of new people. There continues to be fears of an ever-expanding city, urban sprawl, soaring rent-prices and the spread of the tech industry. All of which could accumulate in a similar transformation that San Francisco has been going through over the last few years. To the homeless community, the announcement must have been a joke. Meanwhile, members of this very community were construing a plan to make the city more "livable" for themselves.

Out of the doorways by X-Mass

Streetroots is a local newspaper that is "dedicated to publishing the words of disenfranchised people who want others to know who they are and what they think". The paper is sold by homeless vendors and is predominately written by homeless and low-income people. It was submissions editor, Jack Tafari who took the initiative to organize the "Out of the Doorways campaign." As the winter of 2000 took hold, Jack and a handful of Portland's homeless decided to start the campaign to help people "Out of the Doorways" by Christmas. It was a catchy slogan that had a seasonal appeal but they had a much grander vision in mind. Before long, Jack and Bryan Pollard (Streetroots' Managing Editor) were organizing a diverse group from Portland's homeless population and eager volunteers to make plans to establish Camp Dignity. Advocates for the homeless estimate that there are less than six hundred beds to accommodate more than three thousand people seeking shelter in the city of Portland. Furthermore, conditions in shelters are regularly overcrowded and unacceptable to many people who have to stay there. They are often unable to secure their belongings, thus occasionally falling victim to theft. The shelters are also, all too often over crowded with inhabitants forced to sleep almost on top of each other. Homeless people in Portland have complained that they have even been made to pray for a meal or a place to sleep on occasion. One long-time homeless person described how he had felt suicidal after experiencing homophobia in one of the shelters he had been staying and he vowed never to go back into another shelter again. In addition, although much of society likes to believe that people are homeless because they have issue with drugs, alcohol or mental health, believe it or not there are people living on the streets without such issues. And these members of the homeless community experience the added difficulty of getting assistance and shelter because they are not a high a priority as those experiencing addiction and/or mental health difficulties. The only alternative to the shelters is living on the streets. Everyone has seen people wrapping themselves up in dirty blankets on a cardboard box for a mattress in a shop doorway or under a bridge. Some people have seen the homeless gathering up their belongings into bags and shopping carts before the rest of the city comes alive each morning. But few people see the homeless being robbed of their shoes in the middle of the night or panicking about where they are going to are going to urinate or defecate. Or being constantly harassed by the police and being denied the right to sleep entirely. Jeff Rountree, a Streetroots vendor, has related stories of people he has known having their blankets and sleeping bags slashed by the police in the middle of the night, as a way of forcing the person to move on. In fact the city of Portland, has an anti-camping ordinance, that essentially makes it illegal to be homeless unless you are in a shelter. A quick reminder: there are approximately six hundred beds to accommodate three thousand people seeking shelter. It does not benefit anybody for the homeless to sleep in doorways, in front of businesses or under bridges. Its not good for the image of the city, not good for business, it scares passers-by and it is more work for the police department. Most importantly, living in the streets is dangerous, inhumane and intolerable for the homeless themselves. After weeks of meetings to discuss the logistics of the campaign, camp location, what to expect from the city, public, police and media, the campers announced that they wanted to get on with it. Some members of the campaign were initially hesitant but they were mainly non-homeless supporters. The actual homeless people involved felt that everything that could be planned had been and the rest would have to be worked out as they went along. The most important thing was to get off the streets and into better living conditions. So Camp Dignity pitched its first tent in the early afternoon on the Sixteenth of December 2000 on what was believed to be public land. It was a momentous occasion for the campers involved. By the end of the day there were about half a dozen tents and a community was born. Up and until that point, John a disabled homeless veteran and camp organizer Jack had been sleeping together under a bridge. They were sleeping on a dirty, oil stained slab of concrete and were constantly disturbed by cars and the occasional person shooting up heroin. As far as they were concerned, there was no going back to sleeping in such conditions. Living in a tent, as a part of Camp Dignity, was and continues to be, significantly more "civilized" and "dignified" than what they had been use to.

Camp Dignity On The Move

The original camp was set up in a once derelict area of the city that is slowly becoming over run with upscale apartment buildings. The camp was visible from the bridge overhead, a nearby highway and even the train. As passengers settled into their seats for the picturesque journey to Seattle, they could see the campers going about their daily business, holding meetings, cooking, eating and sleeping in the cold Portland open air. Unfortunately, it was soon discovered that the camp was actually on private not public land and was forced to move the day after X-Mass. This was an eventuality that everyone in the campaign had been prepared for, considering Portland's anti-camping ordinance. Under the ordinance the police have to give a twenty four hour eviction notice, but they are under no obligation to say why. With the first eviction, the first "Homeless Front" parade was held from the old site to the new, with campers and supporters marching through the city wheeling their shopping carts full with their belongings. Since then the camp has been moved four times and despite the inconvenience to the campers, each parade has contributed significantly to public awareness and sympathy for the campaign. Each move has attracted an increasing amount of media interest. Portlanders can now often be heard asking if the camp as been evicted recently or whether they have found a permanent site yet. Each move has also seen the camp's population grow and the site location become more high profile.

Soul-Jahs and Dignitarians

The original campers hand picked a core crew of "soul-jahs" from the homeless community. They made sure that a wide range of people were represented in terms of age, race, religion, sexual preference and political persuasion. They also chose people who did not have significant issues with violence, drugs, alcohol or mental health. The last thing the camp needed during its vulnerable early days was a visit from the police or for the media to focus on the negative stereotypes of homeless people. Since that day the camp has been growing in every sense of the word. It was soon confirmed that there was a very real need for a safe alternative to the shelters and the streets. Homeless people began to approach the camp and pitch tents and new campers all began to agree that they felt safer in the camp. As an interesting side note, due to over-crowded conditions in Florida Prisons, prisoners are being forced to live in tents. Critics are calling this desperate measure cruel and inhumane treatment. Camp Dignity residents call it a definite improvement. However, expansion has provided the camp and campaign with a situation that was never really explored during the organizational and planning meetings. That is, how big should the camp grow while in its early and very vulnerable stages? And how is growth going to be curbed without damaging the campaign? Essentially, how should such a high profile campaign that is calling for the city to accept and deal with homeless issues, exclude the very people they are fighting for? The campers have had to work out amongst themselves methods of "policing" themselves, new campers and visitors. There is to be no tolerance for drugs, alcohol or violence and consequently people coming into the camp are asked to leave these problems outside. This is easier said than done and there have been problems with people drinking and taking drugs in the tents. It is also difficult for the core group of original campers to approach people who might unintentionally threaten the security of the camp in this way. As although any drinking or drug use that they may be involved with is done strictly off site, for new campers who are not as in tune with the goals and delicate public image of the camp, this is still regarded as hypocritical. As a result, Camp Dignity has been accused by the members of the homeless community as being exclusive and not inclusive of all homeless people. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only way to convince the city that such a camp can work. At present the camp is on a limited piece of land where it cannot physically grow any larger, with the hope that a permanent piece of land will be granted to them before they will have to move again. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the camp is not already providing an invaluable service. Residents of Camp Dignity are already proud off the achievements that they have had in helping troubled individuals. Some people have dropped by for one night to sleep off the results of an alcohol binge. Others have camped for a week or two with the result being, them coming to grips with and making steps towards conquering an addiction problem. And others have come into the camp with no possessions and no hope, leaving a few days later, with some belongings and the prospect of a job. Even in these very early stages, it is obvious that the camp is filling a void in services for the homeless in Portland.

"Ever Forward"

These are the words that campaign organizer and resident of Camp Dignity ends his campaign updates with. For Jack and all the other core crew, there is no going back to sleeping in doorways or under bridges. The police can keep moving them on, but the camp is ready and willing and has the support to keep on moving until they are permitted to set up a permanent site and create "Dignity Village". They foresee a future site with solar powered accommodation and gardens. They foresee a meeting hall and resource center. They foresee an opportunity to provide education and training facilities for homeless people seeking employment. They foresee the creation of a self-sufficient community to provide safe and dignified refuge run by and for homeless people while they attempt to get back on their feet. They foresee "Dignity villages" spreading to every city that has a homeless population. The campaign has a tremendous amount of support and most people agree that helping the homeless help themselves is an obvious but far-reaching concept. Some conservatives fear that such a village will encourage people to drop out and not get a job, a house, pay tax and so forth. Yet, should all homeless people have to suffer due to these fears? There really is no need for people to be sleeping in doorways and under bridges wondering if they will get cited for urinating in public when nature calls in the middle of the night. There is no need for people to get beaten and robbed because they are sleeping in vulnerable locations. Or to be constantly moved on by the police and denied the right to sleep entirely. Or to wonder if there will be room in a shelter for them, and what the conditions in the shelter will be. The idea of Camp Dignity is very feasible and will benefit the community as a whole. There does not need to be any inconvenience for any sector of the community. Local business will be happy because people will no longer be in their doorways and the city should be happy as it will clearly aid a large portion of the homeless community. It is important that people stop ignoring or pushing aside the homeless, trying to pretend they are not there and try to build some form of community that embraces ALL people. The homeless community has taken a very bold step in creating the "Out of the Doorways" campaign and it is up to the community as a whole to ensure its success. As long as people have to fear life on the streets, Portland has no right to accept its award as Americas most livable city. As long as people are living in fear on the streets in general, no one anywhere has the right to claim they are civilized or dignified.

For updates, contact and general information please go to: (Campaign website)
or (Streetroots Newspaper, "For those who cannot afford free speech")