April 2001 street roots

Dignity Breeds Success

Organization of Dignity Village residents inspires respect in the community.

by Jerry Martin
staff writer

Dignity Village is not Portland's first tent city, but by working to meet neighbors' needs, garnering public support, and facilitating growth for village residents, Dignity is the first to succeed as a transitional homeless community.

Once a week, the villagers of Dignity gather around a lantern and hash out issues of their community and of the surrounding community as they strive to bring the two together. In keeping with a Native American model of democratic procedure, they pass a "talking stick," which signifies the speaker on the floor. Working from a written agenda, they passionately discuss issues, make motions, and vote. They adopt and amend village policies, and delegate responsibilities and work details. They're solving problems and resolving conflicts, and in doing so, the villagers of Dignity are dispelling myths about homeless people.

"The key thing is that you've got a group of people coming together to organize themselves, which is a powerful message to the rest of the community," said Bill Deiz of Augastana Lutheran Church. He and Pastor Mark Knutson first heard about Dignity Village on a KBOO broadcast, and along with many others from Augastana Lutheran, they have been following its progress ever since.

On Friday, Pastor Knutson and members of the church council visited the village on their way to a two-day retreat. Knutson's purpose for the visit was to familiarize and personalize his parishioners with the villagers' vision for Dignity.

Members of the church have been donating everything from tents to frying pans, and although Deiz was quick to defer any credit, it is a growing number of supporters like him who are stepping up to the plate and helping to make Dignity a success.

Deiz said, "Throughout Portland, people of good will are being touched, and the effect is spreading like ripples in a pond."

"People of good will" include Outside In's John Coomler, who works in volunteer/research and development. Coomler, flanked by long-time-supporting representatives from Sisters of the Road Cafe and street roots, attends Dignity Village outreach meetings on Thursdays. Coomler and several of the volunteers from Outside In are working together in an effort to smoothly integrate the village with the neighborhood. "We're connecting with the neighbors, informing them on the issues and resolving problems to meet the needs of both villagers and business owners," said Coomler.

Security Towing, on NW Raleigh, is one of Dignity Village's closest neighbors. When asked how he felt about the village, Jim Alexander, general manager, pointed to a stack of Dignity Village brochures on the customer service desk in his office and said, "It's a great idea if it works."

His workers shared his positive sentiments and Alexander added, "Up to this point, they've been there over a month and we haven't had a single problem."

Alexander said that the people of the village were very responsive to the business's needs. The village was first proposed to be set up directly in front of Security Towing, and Alexander negotiated with village spokespersons to have it located on the side of his business, which turned out to be a better location for everyone.

On the state level, ODOT has stated that they are willing to lease property to Dignity Villager at the market rate, somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 per month. "We have discussed the possibility that the camp could offer work as an in-kind trade for this cost," said Bryan Pollard, one of the organizers of the Out of the Doorways campaign. At present, Dignity Village is waiting for ODOTs list of surplus sites for lease.

Dignity village has grown to 53 tents and 75 people. It has reached the maximum capacity that the plot of land on which it stands will allow, and, unfortunately, villagers are reluctantly turning away home-seeking newcomers.

Commissioner Eric Sten's office has been instrumental in helping village organizers communicate with city officials, and when a semi-permanent site is found, the city will provide aid in the process of obtaining permits and meeting zoning regulations.

While Dignity Village is succeeding as a collective effort, it is also succeeding on a more urgent and individual level by providing a foundation for homeless people on which they can rebuild their lives. The success stories are many.

Dignity resident Frank O'Neal came to Portland from Florida four years ago and shortly thereafter became homeless. He spent three years being shuffled around by various shelters and flop houses and couldn't seem to get it together. After six weeks at Dignity Village, his life has changed.

"The difference between shelters and here [Dignity] is you have privacy and you're not herded like cattle. I'm not a statistic, I'm a human being," says O'Neal, adding, "There's people driving a Mercedes that are only two checks away from being here."

He has earned the money to buy his own tent by working through temporary services, and now he's moving on to bigger and better things. O'Neal sees the village as a transition place.

A master mechanic of roofing, O'Neal has worked for international construction companies in the past and has recently secured a superintendent's job in the Medford area where his daughter lives.

As word of Dignity Village reverberates throughout the city, the procession of curious visitors grows. Church members, college students, social workers, and individuals of all sorts come to the village to talk, listen, and learn. All are met by the charismatic poet Jack Tafari, village resident and organizer, who eloquently shares his vision and his bottom line, "Love and respect for ourselves and for others."