Dignity Village strives for permanent status

by Todd Adkisson
September 2002 issue of street roots

Model homeless community works to secure a "perma-site"

Dignity Village leadership and supporters continue to pour intense effort into securing a permanent location, a "perma-site" in Village terminology, despite a succession of hurdles and disappointments.

The City of Portland first permitted the Village to move to the bleak parking lot called Sunderland Yard, located between Columbia Boulevard and the Portland Airport, last winter, and despite the remote location and environmental challenges, the Villagers quickly transformed the leaf composting facility into a comfortable and safe place for 60 homeless residents.

While Dignity got its start by directly confronting city authorities with its unauthorized camp under the downtown, it has since made every effort to follow city procedures and find housing solutions through carefully planned actions.

In return, the city has responded in kind with a fair degree of cooperation.

"The city has been supportive in helping the Village become legal on a site," said John Hubbird, a member of the site selection committee that has been meeting weekly for more than half a year.

The city first imposed a deadline of June 30 for Dignity to move, but as part of a proposal by the Village to usher in a smoother transition to another location, an extension was granted. That extension supposes that the Village will be moving sometime in the near future, but the city has shown considerable flexibility about time limits up to this point.

"My working assumption is that we don't have a hard deadline," said Marshall Runkel, an assistant to city commissioner Erik Sten. "Whenever you have a set deadline, all the focus goes to how long the Village will be on a site. It's not flattering, and it's not the whole story."

But Dignity members have not been satisfied with the insecure nature of their position. The dozen or so members of the site selection committee have vigorously pursued site possibilities and enlisted the services of legal experts and other specialists to help them cut through the reams of regulations that could apply to sites with potential to become a permanent home for the Village.

"Over the past year we have considered well over 50 possible sites and just about all of them have been deemed inappropriate for one reason or another (e.g., hostile neighborhood associations, lack of wheelchair accessibility and/or bus service, zoning incompatibility problems, opposition from environmental groups who fear the impact the village might have on public land, etc.) We've also looked at creative alternatives such as partnering with a Land Trust Organization or moving out of the area," noted Kate Lore, a committee member.

These efforts have not been hit-or-miss. The committee keeps vigilant records and follows all standard criteria in negotiating with landowners and concerned parties.

Requirements for a good Village site are not meager. The Dignity Village website lists necessities in its June proposal to city officials. A few of the major needs include one and a half acres of level ground, zoning code compatibility, a location within two miles of downtown and near bus lines, and an affordable price.

In addition, the Village is striving for much more than just a place to pitch tents. Architects have drawn up several development proposals, all of which include considerations for ease-of-use by Villagers, harmony with surroundings, environmental compatibility and a pleasing appearance. The Village has already innovated with a windmill that supplies some of the site's electricity, and the plan is to evolve into a community that enhances Portland's reputation as a green city while providing a reasonable alternative for homeless people.

"Finding a good site for Dignity Village presents our community with a tremendous challenge. I am confident that this challenge will be met with success eventually and the City of Portland will soon be an example for all other American cities who lack sufficient amounts of affordable housing and shelter space," said Lore.

In the meantime, the quest for permanent status will go into a two-phase approach. The first step is to secure more time at an interim site, and the second is the big step to a permanent location. Site Committee members have set February 2003 as a target for locating a permanent site and April 2004 for a move-in date. This is a practical approach considering the legal hurdles and financial obligations that will have to be faced, and that in turn necessitates more time on an interim site on which both the Village and the city can agree.

"Our immediate focus is to obtain a 12 to 18 month lease at Sunderland. I am optimistic that the city will accept the Village's proposal to lease the current site for 12 to 18 months," said Eli Spivak, an organizer for the Site Selection Committee.

This proposal for an extension of the current interim site went to the city council in the last week of August. The proposal could have a good chance of being accepted due to considerable momentum at City Hall to allow the Village to remain where it is for the time being. A swing toward insisting on an earlier move from Sunderland would require much political effort.

Responsibilities at City Hall have shifted, however, with Commissioner Jim Francesconi taking over the Office of Transportation, which oversees Sunderland. Whether a positive relationship with city council members will continue is in question, and Genie Nyquist, Bureau Manager for the Bureau of Maintenance which manages Sunderland Yard did not respond to requests for a comment on Dignity's situation.

Despite the changes at City Hall, Runkel concedes, "The people at Dignity Village are working hard. Nobody wants to give them a needle in the back."

There are other reasons why a forced move in the near future would be very tough. The village has grown from a group of tents to a neighborhood of durable structures. Small square buildings are neatly arranged throughout the current site, and it would be hard not to think of such places as homes. With winter soon to bring rain and wind, these sturdy dwellings with effective roofs will be comforting if left in place and cumbersome if required to move.

"I keep half my things packed up in case we do have to move, but I leave out all the things that are essential," said Gaye, a pleasant village resident. She stood outside her peaked-roof home, where she lives with her husband. Planter boxes lining the area were filled with tomatoes, squash and other vegetables. "Dog Dave built this place, but he got a good job and moved into other housing, so we are here now."

The Village also has several buildings for common use, a semi-portable shower unit, and a bus that is used as a recreation room for watching videos. "The village's next move is obviously going to involve a lot more than simply another 'shopping cart parade,'" the June proposal points out.

Although Villagers have managed to build Dignity to this level, they diligently keep pursuing their dream of a truly suitable perma-site.

Success in Dignity Village's evolution will continue benefits that have already surfaced. Over 150 former residents have found employment and transitioned to conventional housing. While residents enjoy a great degree of independence at Dignity, they must also abide by community rules that prohibit alcohol and disruptive behavior and insist on positive contributions to the Village. In many ways, Dignity Village has already proved it's worth as an alternative opportunity for a segment of Portland's residents.

Moving forward to a new site after a reasonable transition period will continue this growing tradition. "Our current Sunderland Yard site is the only site we haven't voluntarily chosen, all other sites we chose ourselves or negotiated," states Jack Tafari, Dignity Village Chairman and a major driving force behind the continuously diligent efforts.

While Dignity seeks to continue this trend under its own power, unforeseen positive developments would also be appreciated. "I would also appeal to any citizen to help the villagers at this time. If you have land -- or even a large building -- that you could lease to the Village, please contact the Village immediately," suggested Lore.

Contacting Dignity Village has been made easy by their top-quality website at www.outofthedoorways.org. The site can also take monetary contributions.