Dignity Village, a collection of tiny houses and common structures scrapped together with love and elbow grease, turns 17 this year. Located on a city-owned parcel next to Columbia River Correctional Institution and the city’s Sunderland leaf recycling facility, it appears to be the longest continuously sited community of its kind in the country.
Mubarak, Jack Tafari, Tim Brown and JP Cupp were among the group who brought the then-radical settlement to life in December of 2000, according to Dignity Village resident Scott Layman and Mubarak.
For Mubarak, meeting Tafari, a white Rastafarian who died last year, was a moment that catalyzed his whole life.
“I felt like somebody gave me a golden rainbow to go to heaven on,” he says.
The four were part of a wave of protests that brought national media attention to houselessness in Portland through events like shopping cart parades: cavalcades of houseless people pushing shopping carts filled with possessions from one settlement site to another. Mubarak says he met Cupp and Brown at a “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” protest.
The protest movement presented an alternative narrative to a society that tended to view houselessness as criminal, Mubarak says.
The group that founded Dignity Village came together in tent clusters known as Camp Dignity, first under bridges in Northwest Portland, later under the Fremont Bridge. The early tent settlements that would lead to Dignity Village had informal rules prohibiting drugs, alcohol and violence, Mubarak says, which created an environment of relative safety that attracted others.
As the group grew, its governance structure became more formal; it registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in December of 2001 and soon split into three parts, one of which relocated to the village’s current site: Sunderland Yard, a city-owned property in an industrial area near Portland International Airport.
Though some village members felt the site's remote location, far from social services, doomed it to failure, the community has persisted.
In 2007, the Portland City Council formalized its rent-free relationship with Dignity Village when it adopted Ordinance No. 180959, authorizing a contract with Dignity Village to manage a transitional housing campground at Sunderland Yard for up to 60 people, city documents show.
“You can call it a village, a gathering, a community, call it what you want," Mubarak says. "But what it was, was breaking the mold of houselessness.”