We came out of the doorways of Portland’s streets, out from under the bridges, from under the bushes of public parks, we came openly with nothing and no longer a need to hide as Portland’s inhumane and Draconian camping ban had just been overturned on two constitutional grounds. We came armed with a vision of a better future for ourselves and for all of Portland, a vision of a green, sustainable urban village where we can live in peace and improve not only the condition of our own lives but the quality of life in Portland in general. We came in from the cold of a December day and we refuse to go back to the way things were.
Dignity Village started as both a camping protest by a group of committed homeless activists, and a viable alternative to sleeping on the streets and in doorways. It emerged as a transient tent city in December of 2000 on a parcel of vacant city land underneath a downtown bridge. Over the course of a year, the tent city was swept around Portland, occupying various public spaces, and repeatedly finding themselves in high-profile standoffs with officials. Whenever notice was given to leave a campsite, early residents of “Camp Dignity” packed their belongings into shopping carts and pushed them in parades to their next location.
Dignity Village is a membership-based community in NE Portland, providing shelter off the streets for 60 people a night since 2001. It’s democratically self-governed with a mission to provide transitional housing that fosters community and self-empowerment– a radical experiment to end homelessness.
For a time, a space under the Fremont Bridge was known as Camp Dignity. In December 2001, Dignity Village registered as a non-profit status. When the ruling came down that they needed to vacate from that location.
Moving to the Sunderland Yard site was indeed controversial. Some early members of Dignity Village felt it was too far outside the city, doomed to failure because residents wouldn’t be able to access necessary services.
This move was meant to be temporary until a permanent site could be identified. Instead, it has been the home of Dignity Village since its controversial beginnings. After three years surviving in its temporary status, it was sanctioned as an official tiny house Village in 2004 by the Portland City Council. To do this, the City Council designated a portion of Sunderland Yard as a Designated Campground. This State statute allows 6 municipalities to designate up to two sites as campgrounds to be used for “transitional housing accommodations” for “persons who lack permanent shelter and cannot be placed in other low-income housing.” The statute notes that these transitional campgrounds may be operated by private persons or nonprofit organizations.
When the first Villagers arrived at Sunderland Yard, it was the start of winter, and the beginning of a harsh season for the organization. Over the course of many years, and with the support of many friends and volunteers, we built the Village to its current form. What started as tarps and tents gradually changed to four-walled, permanent tiny house structures.
We seek to create a green, sustainable urban Village for those who are seeking shelter but are unable to find it. We feel it’s necessary to establish a community-based living facility where people living on the streets can have their basic needs met in a stable, sanitary environment free from violence, theft, disruption of peace, and drugs and alcohol.
Dignity Village supplements its operating budget with a variety of entrepreneurial projects. Over the years, the Village has raised money through plant sales, tie-dyed t-shirt sales, and flea markets. For several years, members of Dignity Village ran a hot dog stand in downtown Portland, called “Dignity Dogs,” through a partnership with Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon. Currently, our most successful microenterprise programs are scrap metal recycling and firewood sales. Seasoned firewood can be purchased at Dignity Village seven days a week.
Image: Kwamba Productions