Report for Dignity Village

Portland, Oregon- June 17, 2002
Robert Biswas-Diener

Background to subjective well-being research: Subjective well-being is a field of psychological study that focuses on happiness, quality of life, and what is going "right" with people. Subjective well-being studies have led to a greater understanding of happiness, its causes and consequences. For example, researchers know that having goals and good social relationships are very important to happiness. They also know that life circumstances, such as being old or young, male or female, African-American or Caucasian, make relatively little difference to happiness. Although income makes only a very small contribution to happiness many researchers think that income has the largest bearing on happiness at the lowest economic levels. For someone living on a wage under a thousand dollars a month, for example, more income might translate to better health care, more convenient transportation, a better diet, psychological security, and more enrichment opportunities for their children. To understand the relationship between income and happiness Dr. Edward Diener, of the University of Illinois- Urbana/Champaign, and his son Robert Biswas-Diener, M.S., an independent researcher from Portland, Oregon have undertaken a large international research project with communities of people living a "materially simple" lifestyle. To date, Diener and Biswas-Diener have collected data with homeless people in Fresno, California, slum dwellers and prostitutes in Calcutta, India, Amish farmers in Illinois, Maasai tribal people in Kenya, and Inuit hunters in Greenland. Each of these societies represents a different aspect of material simplicity or material deprivation and offers a unique look at income as it relates to happiness.

Definition and methods: Subjective well-being is made up of three primary components: positive emotions, the relative absence of negative emotions, and life satisfaction (a "thinking," rather than "feeling" judgment). Researchers use interviews, surveys, and other techniques to see how happy people are, how satisfied they are with their lives, and how much distress they feel. In the current study respondents were asked about their life history (e.g. events that led them to become homeless), their current circumstances (e.g. housing conditions), their satisfaction with life in general and with specific aspects of life (e.g. health), their emotions (e.g. how frequently they feel "joy"), as well as open-ended questions about aspects of their life that they value, and those they would change.

Basic results:

The sample

Our study of Dignity Village (DV) was aimed at understanding how this progressive social experiment affects the well-being of the residents. It was our hypothesis that the residents of DV would be slightly dissatisfied with their lives due to the material and social deprivation associated with homelessness. We also predicted that the residents of DV would be more satisfied and experience less stress than their homeless counterparts on the streets. The official maximum occupancy of DV is 60 people, of whom approximately 19 are women and 41 are men (see table 1 for demographic statistics). Our sample consisted of 41 respondents (12 women, 29 men). 7 participants were ethnic minorities and the remaining respondents were white. The average length of time residing at DV was 8 _ months, but this number includes, in some cases, time spent at DV’s previous site under the Freemont bridge. The average age of the research participants was 40, and a quarter of the participants reported being married (which is far below the national average for people of the same age group). Of the 34 respondents who answered the question about education 14 reported having a high school diploma or equivalent, and another 15 reported attending some college- usually at the community college or trade school level. No one reported a four year degree. 33 respondents reported having been arrested (far above national averages) with 10 of these being serious felony arrests and/or substantial jail time. It is likely that due to the stigma of arrest DV residents, on average, under-reported past criminal behavior. 11 people reported being institutionalized for mental health concerns. This also may be under-reported. The vast majority of participants reported occasional contact with their families, usually by phone or internet.


To measure general life satisfaction we used the "Satisfaction With Life Scale," a measure that has been widely used with diverse populations and found to have strong validity. The SWLS is a 1-7 scale with a minimum score of 5 and maximum of 35, with 20 being the neutral point. On average the respondents at DV scored a 17.3. This indicates that, on average, the residents of DV are between neutral and slightly dissatisfied with their lives. American college students, by comparison, typically score around 22, or slightly satisfied. It is especially interesting to note that homeless people in Fresno scored 14.11, well below the residents at DV.

We also asked people at DV to report on their satisfaction with specific elements of their lives, such as their morality, their income, and their food. The results are shown in table 2. As can be seen in the table, DV residents appear least satisfied with material domains, especially income and material resources ("food" is a notable exception). When asked what aspect of their life they would most like to change 52% of respondents indicated they would like to change their housing, joblessness, or some other aspect directly related to their material circumstances. Social satisfaction was close to neutral, although satisfaction with friends was relatively high and satisfaction with privacy was quite low. About half the respondents (19 of 37) reported social relationships were one of the aspects of life they liked best. DV residents were most satisfied with self-related domains, especially morality and competence. This indicates that, on average, they feel good about themselves despite the circumstances of their lives.


In our study we asked about the frequency of 12 common emotions. Participants were asked to respond using a 1-7 scale ranging from 1 (never) to 4(half the time) to 7 (always). Residents of DV reported high levels of "interest" (4.7) and "affection" (4.67- near the "most of the time" response), and moderate amounts of joy (4.02- near the "half the time" response). They also reported very high levels of worry (4.4), anger (3.7), and boredom (3.8). Interestingly, boredom and anger were significantly correlated in the study. This means that the more bored an individual the higher the chances they were also angry, and vice versa.


Conclusions and comparison with other groups: Dignity Village is an unusual social experiment and offers exciting potential solutions to the problem of homelessness. In theory DV provides a place where high functioning homeless individuals can take refuge from drugs and crime that are hallmarks of life on the street. By making food, hygiene, and telecommunication services available the members of DV have attempted to establish the camp as a "half way house," bridging life on the street with community life. The mission of DV is to restore dignity by providing the opportunity to participate in governance, maintenance, safety, and other local programs. The effectiveness of this mission is not entirely clear. It is true that the residents of DV, on average, are higher functioning than the average homeless person. The incidence of current drug use, criminal behavior, and debilitating psychiatric disorders is relatively low. It is possible that the average intelligence, social skills, and competence of residents of DV is also higher than that of their peers in downtown shelters. The question left unanswered in the current study is: Would the residents of DV, who are higher functioning than their "street" counterparts, be happier even if they were not at Dignity Village. It is unclear if the positive aspects of life in DV are the result of the DV experiment itself, or simply a by-product of the individuals involved. Regardless of the answer, there seems to be some tangible benefit to the DV experience:

Material Life

It is clear that the material deprivation associated with homelessness has taken a psychological toll on the residents of DV. The respondents reported the lowest satisfaction with material resources and income, and were generally neutral toward their housing. Common complaints of residents were related to bus service and access to downtown Portland, health complaints, flooding of DV during winter rains, and housing problems. Despite these set backs the residents of DV are relatively prosperous. They have sturdy individual dwellings and very good access to food. In our study of the Fresno homeless we found that living homeless outside a shelter was associated with higher satisfaction than residing in a shelter. It is likely that the self-sufficiency and autonomy of life at DV is psychologically beneficial.

Social Life

Based on the results of the current study it is safe to say that the residents of DV have a history of social difficulties that either contributed to their being homeless, or have been exacerbated by it. The high incidence of divorce and arrest, the infrequent contact with children and other family members, and the relatively low satisfaction with family, privacy, social life, and respect paint a picture of a social life that is in need of improvement. That said, it is notable that the residents of DV report relatively high satisfaction with their friends who are, in many cases, other residents of DV. The residents of DV differ substantially from the homeless sample in Fresno in that they have maintained at least occasional contact with family members, report high levels of affection, feel relatively physically safe in their daily life, and generally trust their peers. These problems were substantial contributors to the lower quality of life in Fresno. In the shanty towns of Calcutta, those settlements which most closely physically resemble DV, the cultivation of a positive social life helped residents overcome the dire effects of poverty. Although the current results are preliminary it is likely that one of the greatest benefits of DV is a safe, positive social life, and that this might account for the difference in satisfaction scores between the Fresno homeless and the residents of DV.

Emotional Life

The residents of DV experienced high levels of stress. It is likely that the high levels of anger and worry are directly related to their material and social circumstances. The most common worries were related to finding a permanent site for the DV settlement, and gaining employment. It is possible that with the establishment of a permanent camp some of this worry could be lessened. The high reporting of boredom indicates that day to day life at DV does not provide enough meaningful or entertaining experiences. It is unclear whether this is because these activities are unavailable or because residents do not adequately engage in them. On the positive side, the DV residents reported very high levels of affection, indicating that the social life at DV is positive.

Recommendations: There is a high likelihood that DV works as well as it does- in terms of self-governance, daily maintenance, and safety- because the residents are so high functioning. It is likely that the introduction of large numbers of active drug users, people prone to violence, or people with severe psychiatric disorders would significantly disrupt the quality of life at DV. Retaining specific criteria for membership and articulating rules for expulsion help ensure that DV is a socially productive environment. Although these results are preliminary it appears that DV provides a set of social benefits for the residents including safety, friendship, and trust. A major social complaint at DV was the lack of privacy. When developing any future sites privacy and crowding concerns ought to be carefully considered. Limiting the number of members is one way to prevent density related problems. In addition, the architecture and physical layout of any future sites ought to reflect an attention to privacy needs. Moving various common areas far away from one another will ensure that residents of each section of the camp have a "local" retreat. Further, while accepting there are certain space restrictions moving tents and housing structures further from one another could help alleviate problems associated with lack of privacy. Small design elements can be added for little or no cost which will help create a psychological sense of privacy: placement of front doors, visibility of clotheslines, and visibility of shower and bathroom entrances are all architectural considerations with privacy related consequences.

Another common complaint of the residents of DV was boredom. Because past research has taught us how important goals are to happiness, this point merits attention. Although the rules of DV provide that members participate in community service it appears that this activity is not sufficient to prevent boredom. DV has internet capable computers, a TV and VCR, a basketball hoop, a community garden, and other available activities. It is unclear whether these activities are not being utilized or if they are insufficient. At any future sites it is recommended that the members of DV continue to develop these social opportunities as well as others. The specific activities are largely dependent on the personal preferences and abilities of the residents of DV. Bands, concerts, poetry readings, life skills workshops, classes such as engine maintenance and bicycle repair, are only a few examples of life enriching opportunities that are not currently being developed at DV. Such activities would provide a much-needed sense of structure and opportunity for personal growth. One of the most important considerations in the development of engaging activities is structure. Having regular scheduled meetings, practices, and classes gives people something to look forward to, and helps them develop planning skills. Currently, I believe there are not enough opportunities for challenge, self-improvement, or charitable action at DV. Residents could offer classes, workshops, support groups, artistic opportunities, labor exchanges, or community charitable projects that could help residents meet personal growth needs. Currently, there are few such projects, and those projects are beings undertaken by only a few highly motivated individuals.

Take home message: Dignity Village is showing early signs of success. It appears to be a viable alternative to traditional homeless intervention with positive personal and social consequences for its residents. The DV model likely works as well as it does because the members are relatively high functioning people. They have been successful in increasing the quality of food distribution, housing, and social aspects of life above and beyond the standards typically associated with homelessness. Because they are relatively self-sufficient and autonomous the residents of Dignity Village are receive psychological benefits including increased self-esteem, personal satisfaction, and feelings of competence. In the future, residents of Dignity Village will face the challenges of developing more entertaining and meaningful daily activities for themselves as well as overcoming problems related to privacy.

A note to government officials: Dignity Village is a dynamic, progressive social experiment. There are relatively few self-sufficient shanty towns in urban environments and Dignity Village is coming under national scrutiny and increasing media attention. Dignity Village effectively serves the city of Portland in several ways. The positive media attention and apparent early success of the experiment establishes Portland as a progressive city with both pro-social attitudes and visionary leadership. Dignity Village serves the community of Portland more directly by providing effective social service intervention to an underserved section of the homeless population. My research at Dignity Village suggests that the social benefits of village life are associated with an increase in quality of life for the residents. In the opinion of this researcher the monetary costs connected with Dignity Village are well worth the psychological and social benefits for the residents of Dignity Village as well as the community of Portland in general.

TABLE 1: Demographic Statistics

Average age40.3
Sexmen (71%); women (29%)
Educationsome high school (12%); HS or GED (36%); some college (36%)
Marriagemarried (24%)
Arrest historyshort jail time (51%); more than a year in jail (24%)
EthnicityCaucasian (83%); remainder Hispanic, native American, and African-American
Hospitalizationhealth reasons (41%); mental health (14%); both (12%)
Contact with familyoccasional (63%); common contact (9%); no contact (28%)
Note: These statistics reflect the research sample and are a good predictor of Dignity Village as a whole, but do not reflect the total population of Dignity Village.

Score (1 to 7 scale)

material Resources3.87*
Romantic Relationship(s)4.41
Social Life4.31
Physical Appearance4.29
Respect (from others)4.53
Daily Activities4.72
* = relatively low score
** = relatively high score