from 1/27/2001 issue of The Oregonian

Camp Dignity is no indignity, it's an answer

The homeless tent camp fills a need, beds for people who need them, at no cost to the city; so what's the problem and concern here?

Saturday, January 27, 2001

Your editorial ("Indignities," Jan. 17) concedes that homeless people need and deserve "alternatives that are less crowded and rule-bound than shelters," yet dismisses the Camp Dignity model, the homeless urban tent camp, as a "distraction" from the real business of getting all homeless people into a room or an apartment.

The problem with this solution is the system claims it simply will never have the money to do this. Mayor Katz loves to talk glowingly of the millions of dollars the city has already spent on homelessness as if to say, what more could they want? The unpleasant reality behind the rhetoric is that on any given night the city has at most 600 sheltered beds and about 3,000 people on the streets.

With or without Camp Dignity we're going to have 2,400 or so people living unsheltered. The question is, do we force these 2,400 people under bridges and into doorways to be criminalized by police (for loitering, camping, trespassing, public defecation, etc.) and victimized by street thugs, or do we allow them to organize themselves into safe, sanitary, drug and alchohol-free urban tented villages?

Camp Dignity is demonstrating a workable model that makes much more sense for everyone, especially homeless people, but also small businesses that, under the former scenario, must deal daily with sanitation and other issues around their businesses. So far, Camp Dignity has received absolutely no public funds and it has successfully accommodated 25 or so people since it started in December.

So, where's the problem?

The editorial correctly notes that Camp Dignity is really "trying to move the discussion beyond the question of a bed for the night. The key here is self-determination. The current shelter system is based on a "one size fits all" assumption that every homeless person needs a job and an apartment. When you're homeless, everyone else always knows what's best for you.

Many homeless people are certifiably unemployable due to addiction issues, physical impairments, inadequate identification, criminal backgrounds, mental or emotional issues, political/philosophical perspectives and other factors in their lives. What about them? What about conscientious objectors to an economic system they equate with the New Babylon? What about people who prefer a nomadic lifestyle or who need to do that for a period in their lives for emotional reasons? Whose interest does it serve to criminalize these people?

For that matter, why not let anyone organize into drug and alcohol-free, self-help communities to live off the recycled cast-offs of everyone else? Isn't this what our planet needs?

Is the rest of society so threatened by poor people that we are willing to sit by and watch them be stripped of their constitutional rights and criminalized into prisons at a cost to taxpayers of $35,000 a year per head?

I hope not, because there's no telling who might be next. How many of us are living one paycheck away from homelessness?

The people of Camp Dignity are demonstrating there is a more humane and cost-effective way to deal with homelessness. They deserve the support of everyone who cares about living in a community with basic human rights and constitutional freedoms for all, regardless of their economic status.

John Hubbird of Northwest Portland has been the director of a nonprofit, community development corporation and a private consultant. He currently volunteers at JOIN and street roots, a monthly nonprofit newspaper for the homeless and low-income.