Lasting site eludes camp for homeless



Ibrahim Mubarak -- sporting a bright red bicycle helmet -- beamed on Monday as a woman from the Community Cycling Center in Northeast Portland handed out bike safety instructions to 20 residents of Dignity Village.

Mubarak, one of the leaders of the temporary homeless camp on public land near Portland International Airport, spent the past month working with the cycling center to help get bicycles for village residents. The cycling center -- the latest of a number of groups to pledge support to the village -- donated 20 bikes to the village and put on a class.

"They understand us and what we're trying to do," Mubarak said. "They have serious concerns about people in need, and they recognize that we want to be productive. Now we have a way to get to the services we need."

The connection with the cycling center and a handful of other community-building organizations has boosted morale at the tent city that houses as many as 62 homeless people. And it has emboldened village residents to push the city of Portland and its government to rethink the way homeless people are viewed. Self-sufficiency, village leaders say, is more than just a catch phrase. To them, it's becoming a reality.

But beneath the villagers' series of small victories during the past year is a tangible level of uncertainty.

It's been nearly a year since the City Council approved moving the village from underneath Interstate 405 in Northwest Portland to Sunderland Yard, a leaf-composting facility run by the city's Bureau of Maintenance.

Last September, city and village leaders agreed that residents could stay at the Sunderland site for a few months until they found a permanent home.

Repeated attempts to secure land have failed, and the city-imposed deadline has been put off three times. Now residents are coming up on what could be their final deadline in mid-September, and they still don't have a permanent site.

"You want to believe that something good can happen with all this," said Marshall Runkel, an aide to city Commissioner Erik Sten. "But you can't ignore the everyday, practical difficulties that are coming up. I'm just afraid it might not be possible."

The group started out in December 2000 as Camp Dignity, with members setting up a tent city and moving it from place to place to protest the way some of the shelters were operated.

It grew into a full-fledged community of tents, wooden structures and other buildings on seven acres, wedged between the airport and the Columbia River.

Critics were quick to blame the villagers for taking advantage of the city and taxpayers for getting what amounted to free land. Others complained about the many homeless people who continue to collect public assistance and not work for a living.

But Dignity Village residents for the most part didn't engage them. Instead, the residents -- with some help from community volunteers -- have created raised vegetable and flower beds. They hold regular community meetings that deal with neighborhood issues such as crime and noise. And they've used plans from the Internet to construct a windmill that generates electricity.

Social service agencies and some government officials make a point of referring people who are down and out to the village. It's not uncommon for inmates from the state's Columbia River Correctional Institution next to the village to be nudged in the camp's direction upon their release.

Mubarak sees the referrals as a measure of Dignity Village's success. He says that in the past year, roughly 90 people have found permanent housing after joining the village and using it as a springboard to self-sufficiency.

"It's the type of good news that nobody talks about," he said. "People come here and are not sleeping on the streets. They are finding their way to services and then are making it out on their own after staying here. That's a win."

But the village has also seen failure. Residents have looked at more than three dozen sites only to have each fall through because of neighborhood rejection or disagreements within the village.

Infighting among leaders has often left the village seemingly rudderless, residents and others say. Decisions get made more by default than consensus.

A recent fund-raiser at Portland State University -- trumpeted as a way to raise loads of cash to buy land -- flopped miserably and brought in little money.

And a public squabble with Lee Larsen, a retired school bus company and transportation magnate, hurt the village's chances of having a key financial supporter. Larsen, who lives in east Multnomah County, has donated more than $20,000 to the village to keep it on the city property. Whether he will continue remains to be seen.

For Runkel, Sten's aide on housing issues, the problems illustrate how difficult the task is.

"They have been really ambitious and want things to work," he said. "But taking on homelessness isn't an easy thing to do. Will this work? Only time will tell."

You can reach David Austin by phone at 503-294-5910 or by e-mail at