An improvised homeless village

Summarised from an article by Carol Estes, entitled 'A place for dignity', in YES! A Journal of Positive Futures (Spring 2002 issue). In Portland, Oregon, an innovative village for the homeless has sprung up, in an effort to help those living on the streets break the cycle of jail to shelter to streets to jail. In cities like Portland, shelters provide a necessary but flawed service: three out of four people seeking shelter cannot be accommodated, and places are allocated randomly or on a first-come-first-served basis. Homeless people therefore find themselves concentrating all their efforts on finding shelter, taking care of their possessions and generally surviving. Job interviews and housing applications are not high on the agenda, nor often even possible. The village aims to change all this, by helping homeless people to look after themselves and each other.

'500 village graduates have found jobs and apartments in the past year'

The community, of about 60 people at any one time, is self-governing, with rules made by consensus, and has a strict drugs and alcohol ban on the premises. The residents build their own shelters, with the help of volunteers, from whatever they can lay their hands on in terms of donated and recycled material. Everyone is required to help with chores (such as recycling all rubbish) and there are unofficial systems to help people find jobs and places to live. 500 ex-village residents, or 'graduates' as they are called, have found jobs and apartments since early 2001, with others kicking drug habits or regaining custody of their children.

'Pulling their own weight encourages self- reliance and self-respect'

The key to the village's success, according to its founder Ibrahim Mubarak is that everyone has to pull their weight, which encourages the growth of self-reliance and self-respect. Rather than being spoon-fed short-term solutions, the homeless are encouraged to help themselves by being given the stability and opportunity to change their circumstances. Now, despite seven different locations in the past year, the villagers look like they may have a chance of a permanent site for their community as the local council has agreed to help them in a pilot, project. The aim is to have a sustainable urban village, democratically run, and, on the basis of what has been achieved so far, it might just happen.

Article as included in the Institute for Social Inventions book.