From Doorways to Dignity: The story of Portland's tent city

By Israel Bayer
staff writer

Dignity Village has battled through a turbulent past to arrive where it is today. Imagine a group of homeless people empowering themselves to the point where they took control of their own lives, and organized and developed a vision for a better future for not only themselves, but for people in similar circumstances all over the world.

After more than three years of battling critics, neighborhoods, police, angry newspaper columnists, shelter providers and a reluctant city hall, Dignity Village has come to a crossroads in their evolution for a better tomorrow. By the end of October, the Village will present a detailed proposal to the city that will decide the future of more than 60 people who live at Dignity Village.

Tent cities have popped up in Toronto, Eugene, and Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, Calif., in the past 2 years. Just this month one appeared in Vancouver, B.C. Most faced strict enforcement by city officials and have been swept by police. In Seattle, tents can only stay for 60 days before moving on to the next location. No more than 100 people can live in the same area, and private owners, or churches must donate the land.

Portland's Dignity Village is the only city-sanctioned tent-city in the United States. Its two-year lease agreement with the city to reside at Sunderland Yard expired at the start of October, prompting the latest proposal.

"I see Dignity Village building new structures -- getting things up to code by getting smoke detectors in the structures," said Tim McCarthy, outreach coordinator and Dignity's treasurer. We're going to build platforms for everything 18 inches off the ground to keep us off the water and the rodents out. We're out here on the river and next to a compost pile and next to a field, so it's natural to be dealing with nature. Our proposal will be detailing many things."

Besides trying to get structures off the ground and up to standards with fire codes, they will be implementing a data system to track demographics of Village residents, including who becomes housed.

The proposal will also detail a plan for the future, staying true to its vision to become a green, sustainable village. According to Jack Tafari, the chairman of Dignity Village, the group would like to get past some of the short-term deadlines to allow the village room to work toward a long-term goal, instead of always having to prepare for the next hurdle.

"They (Dignity residents) have a proposal coming to the city," said Marshall Runkel, an aide with Erik Sten's office. "Then the city is going to have to consider the proposal and then come back with an answer."

Runkel said one of two things could transpire. One scenario would be Dignity Village would not be able to stay at Sunderland Yard. Another would be that the village could stay with certain conditions. Runkel went on to say the village would have to make improvements regarding safety at the site.

"Some days its been really hard to see how it could ever succeed, other days I've been amazed at what Dignity has been able to achieve," Runkel commented. "It's an extraordinary thing. The success of the village has come from support from the community. It's one of those things that makes Portland, Portland."

Dignity pays the city $2,000 in rent each month for the site on Sunderland Yard, and maintains portable toilets there for around $17,500 a year. It also pays more than $5,000 a year for garbage services. Most of the money that supports Dignity Village comes from people in the community.

Approximately half the money comes from a single donor, Leland "Lee" Larson, who heads up The Larson Legacy, an organization that contributes to more than 20 organizations around the world, including street roots. Larson walked into the camp after reading an article about it and was immediately transformed into a supporter.

"We have some concerns over ventilation and fire hazards at the site," said Ty Kovatch, the chief of staff for Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard. "Randy would like to see smoke detectors in every structure. Overall, though, he was impressed with the people and the rules that they have developed. People are getting up and going to work and doing a lot better than they have in a long time."

Many critics continue to downplay the village's success, others have hailed the village for the accomplishments they have been able to achieve.

"Dignity's key success is that it has been able to provide a safe place with all the basic services to at least 60 people a night for the past two years. And it has done so at little or no cost to the public," said Marc Jolin, a village supporter and attorney with the Oregon Law Center. "The Village provides the kind of stability and personal support that people experiencing homelessness often need to get off the streets and back into permanent housing."

Regardless of which side of the fence the community may be on, ultimately, it may come down to a city council vote in the coming months. In the weeks and months to come, only the city will be able to decide the fate of Dignity Village at Sunderland Yard.

"We're hoping the city will see a way to allow us to continue in our efforts to build community and a model that may help other people like ourselves in Portland, and all over the world," said Tafari.


"Have you heard the good news, homeless people? We are coming out of the doorways, coming out from under the bridges. We are setting ourselves up a tent city. We are coming in from the cold," wrote Jack Tafari in street roots in November 2000, one month before the tents were pitched on public land.

The first meeting of the campaign, Out of the Doorways, was on Oct. 12, 2000. The village was born out of street roots and homeless activism because of the lack of shelter space in the city.

On Saturday, Dec. 16, 2000, a group of eight men and women pitched five tents on public land and Camp Dignity, later to become Dignity Village, was born. Two days later, the police and fire marshal forced them to leave. The group fled from the muddy field beside the Broadway Bridge. The group marched off to an industrial site under the Fremont Bridge with a shopping cart parade, where the next phase in the battle for Dignity continued.

In the first few months, village members ran a series of articles, poems and opinion pieces in street roots to inform the general public what the camp was all about. Within weeks, the camp had become a media phenomenon on TV and radio stations throughout Portland and the nation. Images of people in wheelchairs and the shopping cart parades were brought to people's living rooms. The groups tactics escalated with every relocation to gain more attention in the community. Most newspapers in Portland covered the camp as being underdogs who had no true vision or way to sustain themselves. The Oregonian editorial board waged a campaign against the village that exists still today.

"The first few weeks were both chaotic and exciting," said Bryan Pollard, former managing editor for street roots and former spokesman for the village. "There was apprehension about how the police would respond but we had contingency plans for a variety of situations. The police responded more gently than we expected, I suppose partially because we had numbers and were obviously organized."

The second site under the Fremont Bridge lasted five days, until the day after Christmas. In another shopping cart parade, they moved to the Waterfront under the Morrison Bridge on the east side. The group lasted about three weeks in the cold of winter at the Waterfront. They then ended up on River Place on Martin Luther King Junior's birthday in January of 2001.

The group agreed to leave River Place a week later, after negotiating for a spot back under the Fremont Bridge. The group lasted there for nine months, before splintering into three factions.

One group went to Rancho Dignity, a forty-acre farm outside of Portland. "We used Rancho Dignity as a temporary holding place for the aged and infirm," said Tafari.

Another group occupied a field near the French-American school on Naito Parkway, otherwise known as the Field of Dreams. The camp was swept on Sept. 11, 2001, and several members of the Homeless Liberation Front, a radical group in Portland that reclaims public lands for the public use, were arrested for camping on public lands.

The third group went to Sunderland Yard, where Dignity Village currently resides. "We eventually all coalesced on Sunderland Yard, but the mood was very, very bitter about being driven out of town," said Tafari.

"The first winter was hell at Sunderland Yard," said McCarthy. "It was cold and nasty! The wind coming off the river in the winter is brutal. The first winter we were in tents. One of the reasons we starting building structures was because of the elements. Our tents were collapsing because of the weight of the water. We took control, and starting building structures out of necessity. Last winter was much better after the structures were built."

Many critics believe that Dignity Village has done nothing for themselves, but villagers and supporters see it differently.

"In the last two years we've built a straw bale house with the help of the Lynda Doleman and Mark Lakeman with the City Repair Project," McCarthy said. "We've erected a windmill, and built a dome structure as a community space. We've built raised beds for flowers and vegetation with about 20 grade schoolers with the Environmental Middle School. We've also built a moveable shower system using a tankless water system and constructed homes from donated scrap materials for villagers."

In addition to these accomplishments, many other organizations and supporters have helped along the way. The Community Cycling Center comes out twice a year to do bike workshops in exchange for bikes. Outside In visits the village twice a month to give check-ups, and refer people to doctors in the community, or hospitals in emergency situations. The village also has a monthly poetry reading and potluck.

It's been two years at the current site, and although villagers were bitter in the beginning and many feel the current site is not the best location, the village has survived.


One of the many critiques of Dignity Village is that they have no vision. Many believe they just want to live in tents out on the edge of town, but according to villagers, they have had a vision from day one: "To create a safe, sanitary, self-governed place to live as an alternative for Portland's poor, an alternative to the over-burdened shelter system where there are about 600 shelter beds for about 3,500 homeless people, an alternative to sleeping alone in the doorways, under the bridges, or in the jails where we are occasionally housed for urinating in public, jaywalking, or camping. Our vision is to create a green, sustainable urban village, built by and for ourselves using mostly donated and/or recycled materials, solar and wind power, composting toilets, and growing our own organic food in our gardens and on our farm."

When asked if they serve a necessary purpose for transitioning people into housing, McCarthy said they have gotten twelve people into housing in the past three months.

Michael Harrison, the media representive for Jim Francesconi said their office hasn't seen anything that shows that Dignity Village has been an effective model.

"Jim has always felt that city resources are probably more effective in transitioning people off of the streets through other assistance programs, including drug and alcohol and mentally ill services."

When asked about rumors of displeasure between the Portland Department of Transportation, which has authority over Sunderland Yard, and Dignity Village, Harrison said that the transportation department knows that the majority of the city council is for the village. "City Council is elected to make these kinds of decisions," he said.

"Dignity Village is a prototype for livability and sustainability for everyone who lives in this city," said Mark Lakeman of the City Repair Project. "In addition to addressing homelessness and poverty, Dignity Village is fighting for social justice and [against] violence against women. The future of the village has always been to move ahead to build a village and to take the rest of society forward into a cooperative culture."

Other critics contest that Dignity Village would not be good for neighborhoods. When the village was potentially moving to a parking lot on Thirtieth Avenue and Powell Boulevard, neighborhood members, Dignity Village, and village supporters got into a heated debate with the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood. At one point, homeowners who were outraged at the thought of Dignity Village moving into their neighborhoods turned on renters who supported the village.

"After meeting fierce opposition from the neighbors, threats of fire-bombing, the City agreed to allow us to remain on our current site provided we paid rent," said Tafari. The Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood's response was typical of most in the village's effort to find a permanent home. But that tide could be changing.

"The question is, where do you go when your income is insufficient to afford housing, when there are not adequate services or shelter space to meet your needs, and you get ticketed for sleeping outside?" said Amy Dudley, a neighborhood community organizer with the neighborhood coalition Southeast Uplift. "In the Homelessness Working Group's community conversations on homelessness, neighborhood association members have praised the hard work of the people at Dignity Village to create a self-reliant solution to the crisis in the lack of affordable housing and sufficient services coupled with policies that make it illegal to sleep outside. Community members have also critiqued the policies, priorities and funding decisions that criminalize the homeless and keep people in poverty. Dignity Village is one of many solutions out there that require all community members to take a look at their role and responsibility in working to end homelessness"

Many homeless advocates also believe that some of the pressure being put on City Hall to get rid of the village comes not only from people such as radio host Lars Larson, home-owners, and key figures who work behind the scenes, but also from within the homeless service community. In particular, shelter providers who see Dignity Village as a threat to their current system, which has nowhere near enough shelter beds for people sleeping on the streets. However, the homeless advocates street roots talked to said that Dignity Village was in no way, shape or form a threat to the shelter system, but instead, just another slice of the pie in working to get people off of the streets. "It's counterproductive to have a shelter system that doesn't want to see people on the streets empowered," said an advocate who requested not to be named. "We all need to be working together."

Yet Ron Williams, director of community outreach with the First United Methodist Church that runs Goose Hollow Family Shelter, recently wrote a letter to the Portland Tribune and The Oregonian stating, "Dignity Village should be shut down as uninhabitable hovels that are not suited for human habitation."


The effectiveness of the village has always been a raging debate in Portland. "At the time, the community feeling was very mixed. We had people coming out of the woodwork wanting to help us and support our struggle, but there were also many people who didn't think it was the right approach or it wouldn't work," says Bryan Pollard. "These detractors have always fascinated me because people have the energy to criticize and cast doubt, but rarely have the creativity or character to propose a better way."

"Dignity Village was the vanguard, and continues to stand up for themselves and everyone who is homeless, exclaiming, and explaining that there is not enough shelter or affordable housing for everyone who is homeless in Portland," said Genny Nelson, the director of crossroads, and co-founder of Sisters of the Road Cafe. "The current system punishes them all for that reality. Dignity Village has provided crucial transitional housing for many of its members. They have been a safe place for men and women to stay, with access to e-mail and a working phone, while they have waited for permanent housing. They are an example of an oppressed people's self- determination."

Michael Anderson, communications coordinator with the Community Development Network, supports the village's triumphs in the face of adversity. If the city takes the tent city away as a housing option, then the city should come up with another alternative.

"Closing Dignity before other housing options are available is wrong," Anderson said. "Dignity Village is a great example of human ingenuity in the face of crisis. With a lack of existing viable housing, the folks who created and are living at Dignity created an alternative. This alternative does not undo the crisis; it provides a workable solution to the crisis for its residents."

Wendy Kohn and her company Kwamba Productions are making a documentary about Dignity Village. Her work there has made her a strong supporter of the tent city's mission.

"Dignity Village provides us with an opportunity and context to discuss the issues, and find out if perhaps there are ways we can all get together to solve community needs and issues," Kohn said. "Dignity Village is trying to create one possible cost-efficient solution to the problem, and the input of business owners and developers would be most valuable."

"To understand what an accomplishment the Village truly is, you have to visit it," said attorney Marc Jolin. "You'll see a community alive with activity. People building and maintaining Village structures with recycled materials and renewable energy, holding community meetings, cooking and helping each other with personal issues, providing guided tours to visitors, and doing all the work of administering a 501(c)(3) corporation. And then consider that all this is managed on an entirely volunteer basis by people who, until recently, have been living on the streets. The village has a lot of supporters that provide critical assistance, but ultimately the Village is a fantastic example of homeless people helping themselves by helping each other and by providing an important service to the rest of the community."