Jack Tafari no sooner gets out of the car than he has a situation on his hands. As
it turns out, there are several situations.
First, Angie violated house rules, got drunk again and started screaming at
everybody. And everybody, frankly, is getting fed up with Angie. And
somebody's threatening to call the cops--again.
Second, a dog chewed a hole in its owner's tent. And now the guy is mad
enough to chew a hole in whoever put the dog inside. Isn't it clear that a person's
dog is to be left alone--even if it's whining outside a tent under the assault of 31
straight days of rain?
Tafari is chairman of the board of directors of Dignity Village, the tent town east
of Portland. When he takes these latest quality-of-life issues before the village
council, the response is swift and practical: Give Angie a no-trespass order and
maybe she will think twice about boozing and yelling if it might cost her her
tent. As for the dogs--leave the dogs alone.
There are homeless encampments across America. Some, like Los Angeles'
Dome Village and Seattle's nomadic Tent City, have evolved into institutions. But
here in Portland, Dignity Village organizers aim to take urban homesteading a
In an unusual experiment in homeless self-governance, they have established the
village as a nonprofit corporation, elected a government and adopted a budget
while eschewing all public funding and the ministrations of charitable groups.
The experiment, however, has not been without its troubles--from community
opposition to the behavior of residents themselves.
In fact, Dignity Village leaders got a stern warning earlier this month from the
city: Shape up or face shutdown. So far, they're taking it to heart. A few residents
who have refused to observe the alcohol ban were ejected, and Angie got the
warning--all without the need for police intervention.
All Decisions Made by Residents' Council
Every decision made in the village--from the distribution of donated clothing to
the number of propane heaters each resident gets--goes to a 20-member council,
which was elected by the residents earlier this month.
"It's entirely run by . . . people who were recently on the street," said John
Hubbird, a community organizer who is helping Dignity Village find a
"They are the police force. They are the criminals. They're everything," added
Mark Lakeman, who is providing architectural services. "We're taking a
population that's basically broken and we're giving them a time and a place to fix
Eventually, Dignity Village leaders hope to build a facility within the Portland
city limits that will grow its own food, operate its own retail services, generate its
own solar heat and electricity and provide a democratic alternative to
cityoperated homeless shelters.
Potential sites and funding sources have been identified. Lakeman has drawn up
plans for a communal village center and dozens of tent sites, along with a
detailed construction budget.
Now the key question is whether about 60 men and women who until recently
were living underneath Portland bridges and in assorted rescue missions can
hold the collective chaos of their lives at bay long enough to create a real
community, one nurturing enough and stable enough that most of them one
day will be able to leave it.
"Portland has a reputation as this tolerant, progressive city. If it doesn't happen
in Portland, it's probably not going to happen," said Hubbird, who believes
Dignity Village will provide a model for cities across America that are struggling
with homeless populations.
"It's not somebody else telling you the way they think you should look," said
Ibrahim Mubarak, one of the homeless co-founders of Dignity Village. "It's
people deciding, 'This is the way I want to live my life.' Dignity Village gives
them a chance to have what America used to be. You pay your debt to society
and you're allowed to get back on your feet."
Portland's tent city had always been a wandering affair, picking up stakes after
city-ordered evictions and rolling from site to site downtown in a parade of
Portland agreed late last summer to temporarily lease the encampment some
city-owned property in a remote industrial area near the airport. In September, it
seemed like a good idea; in December, it seems less so.
The property is a seven-mile bus ride away from city services downtown, and
the rain has been oppressive: Some tents have puddles in the middle of them, the
bedding is damp, it's dipping into the mid-30s at night, and when the propane
heaters give out, a sheet of plastic is a thin barrier against the cold.
Village leaders have created a Web site and promotional brochure outlining
plans for a permanent village on a new site that will include small solar-heated
housing units made of adobe and straw, a central commons and vegetable
gardens, along with cafes, bathroom and kitchen facilities, and a grocery store.
Much of the $154,684 construction budget (which doesn't include individual
housing units) is to be raised through private donations and grants.
"Essentially, we will create housing for ourselves," said the 55-year-old Tafari, a
writer and wanderer who until recently lived in a doorway on Morrison Street.
"The housing will be solar-powered, wind-driven. We'll eat from our garden, on
our own table, and rest under our own fig trees when our labors are done."
While striving for that ideal, however, Tafari has run up against immediate
problems, like the showers that were supposed to be installed but weren't. When
complaining residents asked why, Tafari put his head back and closed his eyes.
"You remember the Jack London story, 'To Build a Fire'?" he asked. "It's a
survival story. I'm going to write a story. It's called, 'To Take a Bath.' "
Portland Skeptical About Permanent Site
The rest of the city has been skeptical if not downright hostile to the plan for a
permanent village. The Oregonian said in an editorial that, while Portland's
shelters fall short of meeting the needs of the homeless, Dignity Village has no
right to squat on public property. "All along, we have agreed that the city of
Portland is obliged to provide safe and appropriate shelter for the homeless. But
the leaders of Dignity Village insist they are entitled to more--to the kind of
shelter they want, in the public location they prefer," the editorial complained.
"It's been embarrassing to watch the council scramble to fulfill every last demand
of the people of Dignity Village. . . . It's time now to ask: Where is the city's
But city officials say they are willing to allow Dignity Village organizers a try.
"We really thought it was better to take kind of a compassionate approach rather
than sending in the police and sweeping them out," said Erik Sten, the city's
housing commissioner. "The progress we've seen so far is not enough to close
the book and say this [village] works. But it is enough to say it might
The biggest hurdle, Sten said, will be finding property within the city as a
permanent village site. A succession of neighborhoods rebelled against earlier
temporary quarters. "We have pitched battles over where to put swimming
pools in this city. We've inventoried every piece of property we have, and there
isn't a site we own that's going to be anything short of a 10-round fight. And I
don't think they can survive a 10-round fight."
Then there's the question of whether self-government works. While Dignity
Village had a quiet debut last fall, the onset of winter has brought a string of
Bob Sims got drunk, got in a fight, punched out some officers and then bit a
female village resident on the arm. Mubarak kept getting in fights with his
domestic partner, Patricia Burland. Two guys disagreed over how to fix a radio
and threw some punches.
Portland police Lt. George Babnick, who oversees Dignity Village, said those
things are bound to happen when you put 60 people, some with minimal life-
management skills, on a piece of asphalt outside of town, huddled together
against the relentless Northwest rain.
"It's miserable out there," Babnick said. "Camping out in the summer is one
thing; parking out there in the wintertime is another."
'In This World, a Week Is a Long Time'
Residents admit the current circumstances aren't ideal. "I wouldn't wish this place
on anybody," grumbled Rick Gorman one recent afternoon, seeking shelter in
the infirmary tent next to a large propane heater.
Resident Deanna Gehardt nods. She and her husband, Jim, showed up at Dignity
Village after they complained about their former roommates' drug use and got
evicted. "We were on the streets for a month and a half. Sleeping . . . in a
schoolyard on a playground, under the slides and stuff," she said.
Neither of them has been able to get a job because of past criminal convictions.
But living in the village at least allows them to search for jobs without having to
carry all their belongings with them.
"We'll stay here long enough to . . . save up some money and get our own place,"
Jim Gehardt said.
In the flickering light of the stove, inside a warm tent, hope springs eternal.
"In this world, a week is a long time. So much can happen in a day, and we've
been here a year," Tafari said. "One day, we'll reach the land of milk and honey. We don't care if they move us and
move us and move us. Because we're prepared to go on forever."