Dignity Village —

Part of the symptoms of and solutions to Homelessness



By Tanzi Smith




Paper prepared for the partial completion of ARCH1268 — Planning for Community Development

Submitted to the School of Social Science and Planning, Faculty of Constructed Environment, RMIT University, Melbourne


September, 2004

Dignity Village — Part of the symptoms of and solutions to Homelessness

Award winning Dignity Village is a community created by and for homeless people. It is located on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon in north-western USA. The existence of Dignity Village represents a symptom of the forces in our community that generate homelessness and a shortage of services to address it. However, the future vision of the village described in the "Dignity Village Proposal" (2004) also represents a vital part of the solution to homelessness. In order to provide a context for the creation and experiences of Dignity Village, this essay will explore the characteristics of the homeless community in Portland, the policies and programs that are in place and the involvement of homeless people in these programs. Information gained during discussions with prominent Dignity Village residents and representatives of various organizations involved in assisting homeless people in Portland form the basis of this analysis.

Jack Tafari, Dignity village elder and Vice Chair, explained that a recent survey counted 1700 people sleeping on the streets of downtown Portland. Dignity Village was formed by eight of these people, including Jack, in December 2000 and, after being forced to move five times, has rented its current site near Portland airport since September 2001 (Dignity Virtual Village, 2004). The current population of forty people is relatively low compared to a maximum of 83 people once occupying the village. The village provides transitional housing in a community setting and residents seek employment and use services such as food-stamps and healthcare outside the village. Our guide, Tim McCarthy, noted many laudable characteristics of the community as we walked around the site. He also expressed concern about the inaccuracy of the stereotypes of homeless people, the role of ill health in homelessness, the difficulty of making ends meet on a low income job, unaffordable low income housing and the need for stability and community.

A review of trends in the Portland community and throughout the USA provides ample evidence to support these concerns, which were also shared by other people I interviewed. The cost of basic expenses is escalating (Rogoway, 2004) and Portland has been identified as one of the least affordable cities in the USA due to the gap between incomes and property prices (Orfield, 1998). Alan Greenspan, US Federal Reserve, recently described a national tend called "skills mismatch" consisting of increasing employer demand for high skilled workers and decreasing demand for low skilled workers. The result is a stagnation of wages among low skilled jobs (Witte, 2004). Jobs are also increasingly insecure; the number of workers in labour unions in the US is currently equivalent to the number of temporary, on-call or contract employees (Witte, 2004). Many homeless families assisted by Multnomah County (the county in which Portland is located) have both parents earning a minimum wage, and yet they are either unable to raise the funds required to takeover a lease, unable to pay the monthly rental or unable to pay for childcare whilst they are at work. This is not surprising when you consider the impossibility of paying for "low income" housing at about $700 per month and quality childcare at $900 per month on an minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. Undoubtedly, this situation contributes to the fact that the under five-age group is the fastest growing homeless group in the US. Add to this mix expensive tertiary education and vulnerability fostered by declining social security and minimal public health care and the appropriateness of the term "poverty trap" becomes evident.

Psychological and emotional stress is another significant feature of homelessness. For instance, families are a significant but invisible sector of the homeless population because they live in the fear that the authorities will take their children away. Illegal immigrants and refugees represent another vulnerable group. Homeless people are also subjected to societal individualization of their situation, and must often contend with inaccurate assumptions of criminality, substance abuse, mental illness and general immorality. Tim McCarthy suggested that these negative community perceptions are reflected in the criminalization of homelessness through laws banning camping and loitering in public.

There are numerous organizations involved in assisting homeless people in the area. In local government, the City of Portland has historically focused on assisting homeless "singles" and on overseeing the network of shelters and transitional housing. As a result of a federal mandate, driven by pressure from the National Coalition for the Homeless, all US regions are charged with developing a 10-yr plan to end homelessness. The City of Portland is responsible for this in the Portland area and hopes to release the plan at the end of 2004. The plan aims to change perspectives on homelessness and take an integrated approach involving stakeholders. Multnomah County concentrates on survivors of domestic violence, families, youth, young adults and immigrants approaching or experiencing homelessness. Multnomah County has had a Homeless Families Plan (HFP), in place since 2000. It was developed using a community planning approach. Both the county and city receive tenuous funding from the State and Federal Governments. There is also numerous non-government or community based organizations, some of which are faith based. These organizations compete for scarce government and private funding.

Many services offered by these organizations revolve around housing. Homeless people have the following continuum of alternatives to sleeping on the street: sleeping in a shelter, renting a motel room, short-term housing, transitional housing or permanent housing. The City of Portland and Multnomah County will provide short term and longer term assistance to enable members of the homeless population they serve to enter into this continuum of housing. The City is moving toward a housing first model similar to that adopted by a local NGO called JOIN. Like JOIN, both the new City plan and the County plan incorporate case support which may include mediation of tenant-landlord relationships, good tenant training, mental health support, addiction counseling and life skills training. The intention is to enable people to move toward home ownership, but there is increasing recognition that some people require permanent assistance. Other programs focus on early childhood or education. Head Start is one of the most prominent. There are limited programs aimed specifically at employment or community awareness.

A recurring theme among these organizations is a lack of funding to meet demand. For example, the Multnomah County 2000 HFP required almost twice the prior level of funding and was anticipated to assist only about 23% of families qualifying for their services at any one time (Ad Hoc Committee, 2000). Measures are being taken in Portland to try to streamline resources and increase efficiency and flexibility, but increasing demand in the face of stagnant or declining federal support (Macindoe, 2004:p37) severely limits the impact these steps can have on homelessness.

Homeless and formerly homeless people were consulted in the development of the City of Portland 10 year plan and the Multnomah County HFP. Tim McCarthy said that only one of the thirteen members of the board presiding over the 10 year plan was a homeless person and Heather Lyons explained that decisions regarding funding allocation in the 10yr plan rest with elected officials. These facts indicate a level of participation in the vicinity of "placation" based on Amstein’s (1969) ladder of participation. The Parents Advisory Policy Council of Head Start and the operation of Dignity Village provide examples of successful processes adopting "delegated power" and "citizen control".

A person may begin the descent into homelessness for complex and varied reasons, but the entire society is responsible for the extent to which they fall. Although current services are valuable, they are under resourced and consequently offer solutions that are fragmented, discontinuous and not conducive to sustainability within and across generations. Nor can they significantly influence the fundamental structural and economic factors causing homelessness. As such, society wide transformation is necessary to avert the numerous trends contributing to homelessness. The Coalition for a Liveable Future’s (Orfield, 1998) list of recommendations that include structural, economic and planning measures to address affordable housing and functioning of communities provides a good starting point for this long term structural solution.

Part of the immediate solution could include promoting the model of transitional housing offered by the proposed vision of Dignity Village (Dignity Village Council, 2004). The self-sustaining model proposed minimizes living costs through use of renewable energy, low cost sustainable building methods, growing of food and site-based waste management. The Village Council estimates that it costs approximately $3 per night to house a person in Dignity Village (Macindoe, 2004. p29) compared to $15-20 in a shelter. Therefore this model directly addresses the economic factors of homelessness by reducing costs of housing and utilities. It also creates a sense of community and responsibility that ameliorates psychological and emotional stresses of homelessness and provides a focal point for services. Perhaps most importantly, a Dignity Village model requires true participation, allowing people to help themselves. The technology exists to ensure such villages can support people in a safe and healthful way. What is lacking is political will to provide access to land, broaden planning laws and embrace community driven solutions to homelessness.


I would like to express my thanks and gratitude to the following people for sharing their time and knowledge with me. Unfortunately, I feel I have not been able to do justice to your efforts and experiences in this very brief paper.

Tim McCarthy, resident, Treasurer and Outreach Co-ordinator, Dignity Village

Jack Tafari, resident, co-founder and Vice Chair, Dignity Village

Chrysler Chelle, resident, Security Co-ordinator, Dignity Village

Donna Shackleford, Office of School and Community Partnerships, Multnomah County

Heather Lyons, Homeless Program Manager, Bureau of Housing and Community Development, City of Portland

Cynthia Wells, Executive Director, Early Head Start Family Centre, north-east Portland.

Thanks also to Rosemary Hands, for giving me contacts and getting me started.


Ad Hoc Committee, (2000), Homeless Families Plan for Multnomah County: Five Year Roadmap For Service Development. Multnomah County Department of Community and Family Services, Division of Community Programs and Partnerships.

Albright, M.A., (2004), Habor Light Flickers: Salvation Army cuts 24 beds from women's shelter, Willamette Week Newspaper 25 August 2004. Source URL: http://www.wweek.com/story.php?story=5451 [Accessed 20 September, 2004]

Amstein, S.R., (1969), A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, vol.35, pp.216-224.

Dignity Virtual Village, (2004), Source: http://www.outofthedoorways.org [Accessed September, 2004]

Dignity Village Council, (2004), Dignity Village Proposal 2004. Source URL: http://www.outofthedoorways.org/proposal2003 [Accessed 10 September, 2004]

Macindoe, M., (2004), Establishing Dignity: From tense beginnings to Legalisation — An Urban Planning Approach to Homelessness in Portland, Oregon, submitted to the Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, August 2004. Source URL: http://www.outofthedoorways.org/establishing.pdf [Accessed 19 September, 2004]

Orfield, M., (1998), Portland Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability, A Report to the Coalition for a Livable Future. Source URL: http://www.clfuture.org/orfreport/orfintro.html [Accessed 12 September, 2004]

Rogoway, M., (2004), Getting by gets harder in Oregon, The Oregonian, September 12, 2004. Source URL: http://www.oregonlive.com/search/index.ssf?/base/front_page/1094903905252140.xml?oregonian?fpfp [Accessed 20 September, 2004]

Witte, G., (2004), As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads, Washington Post, 20 September 2004. Source URL: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/washpost/20040920/ts_washpost/a34235_2004sep19 [Accessed 20 September, 2004]