Civic Dignity

From Groundswell newsletter in the UK.

Imagine a group of homeless people in a large US city deciding that they'd had enough of sleeping on the streets and waiting on endless waiting lists for affordable public housing, and deciding to create their own co-operative tent city. Sounds like a dream? Well it really has happened in Portland, Oregon. And more than two years later, Dignity Village now exists on temporary land donated by the council on the outskirts of the ciy.

It all started on 16 December 2000, when a group of eight homeless men and women pitched five tents on public land and Camp Dignity, later to become Dignity Village, was born. 'We came out of the doorways of Portland's streets, out from under the bridges, from under the bushes of public parks, we came openly with nothing and no longer a need to hide as Portland's inhumane and Draconian camping ban had just been overturned on two constitutional grounds. We came armed with a vision of a better future for ourselves and for all of Portland, a vision of a green, sustainable urban village where we can live in peace and improve not only the condition of our own lives but the quality of life in Portland in general. We came in from the cold of a December day and we refuse to go back to the way things were,' says Jack Tafari, Chairman of the group that's now a registered non-profit. 'We're the longest-running sanctioned tent city currently in the US.'

As the group explain on their website: 'Currently it is illegal to be homeless in Portland. The basic human necessities of living have been criminalised for 19 years now. An anti-camping ordinance makes it illegal to sleep anywhere outside including on public property. Loitering, trespassing, exclusions, and other laws are also being used to keep homeless people on the move. Yet, homeless people have no where else to go. Most homeless people in Portland originated from neighborhoods here and desire to remain here, near their family, friends, and other support networks. It is not practical nor moral to expect homeless people to give up their communities and go elsewhere. Even if they could, other communities don't want homeless people either.' Homeless people in Portland are regularly harassed by the authorities and moved on, so the logical conclusion was to form a group and campaign for space and safety together.

Dignity Village have drawn up a proposal for a co-operatively run community, with a co-operative city farm, performance space and other communal areas, as well as individual low-impact housing. But they are faced with serious 'nimby-ism' (NIMBY = not in my back yard) and get a very hard time from the local press. Despite this, a lot of community groups have taken inspiration from Dignity Village, and the group get a lot of support from individuals in the area.

You can find out more from their website - full contact details on the back page.