Dignity Village's evolution from protest to a lasting home

Portland’s early homeless villages inspired and shaped new housing experiments across town and around the globe

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PORTLAND, Ore. -- On Monday regional housing officials reported that 4,177 people were homeless in Multnomah County during this year’s February “point in time count,” a 10 percent increase since the last count in 2015.

But 14 fewer homeless women are sleeping outdoors or navigating shelter waitlists this month, compared to February.

They are residents of Portland’s newest homeless village, a settlement of 96-square-foot “sleeping pods” on an acre of city-owned land in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood.

Kenton Women’s Village was heralded as the city’s first community of houseless people to be founded with public backing and an official vote of neighborhood support. 

But the fledgling local village is heir to a national social protest movement that Portland homeless activists have helped lead for nearly two decades.

A homeless village is, put simply, a group of houseless people living as a community, in tents or tiny homes, and sharing self-governance, trash, water and toilet service, and a social support system. But villages are more than housing communities, longtime village activist Ibrahim Mubarak says. He describes Portland’s original homeless village, Dignity Village, as “a podium to say: ‘Hey, what about us, are y’all hearing us, are we invisible?’”

Breaking the mold of houselessness

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.”

A national leader

Dignity Village wasn’t the first homeless village in the nation, a distinction that goes back to the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression and beyond. But it anchors Portland’s place in a radical history of homeless villages that is still being written.

“We were one of the first,” says Dignity Village board chair Lisa Larson. Several other homeless villages sprung up around the country at roughly the same time, she says. And it's possible that Dignity Village borrowed ideas from them. “But Dignity Village is the only one that survived.”

In Seattle, what may be among the first homeless villages in the nation, “Tent City” was founded in 1990 by Share, now part of Share/Wheel — which describes itself as “self-organized, democratic, grassroots organization of homeless and formerly homeless individuals.” The original Tent City no longer exists, but three others, Tent City 3, Tent City 4 and Tent City 5, do. Tent City 3 and 4 move regularly, while Tent City 5 has plans to stay on its site in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood for two years.

A homeless village in a Los Angeles parking lot calling itself “Justiceville” was founded in 1993, and was eventually sanctioned by the City of Los Angeles. Its successor, Dome Village, no longer exists.

In Portland, it took more than a decade for a second homeless village to spring up. In 2011, during a wave of downtown-Portland protests ignited by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, a group of homeless individuals pitched tents on a prominent corner of West Burnside next to the Chinatown Gateway. That settlement, Right 2 Dream Too, moved to a parking lot near the Moda Center earlier this month and is recreating itself with a new covered common sleeping area for “overnighters” and 10 new tiny houses.

A third group launched Hazelnut Grove, to continuing controversy, in 2015 in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood.

Kenton Women’s Village sprang to life last week.

Three of four Portland villages—Dignity Village, Right 2 Dream Too and Hazelnut Grove—have roots in one of the most basic types of protest action: a land occupation, a parallel to Latin American protests called “land invasions.”

Village residents pitched tents, often in violation of local zoning codes, either with a property owner’s permission (Right 2 Dream Too) or on publicly owned lands (Hazelnut Grove and Dignity Village).

The new Kenton Women’s Village, by contrast, is being created by a coalition that includes activists as well as city, county, neighborhood and nonprofit partners. Still, it took momentum from a short-term occupation of city-owned property in Lents that some of its organizers helped lead in 2016.

Movement expands amid uncertainty

All four villages, which together house around 160 people, face an uncertain future.

Though in 2016 Hazelnut Grove residents replaced their tents with permanent structures—tiny houses, a bath house and a library—board members are in a contentious, city-led mediation process with the Overlook Neighborhood Association.

Commonalities and contrasts among the different village concepts

The Kenton village has a one-year lease on its current site; the lease could be extended, though there are plans to build a permanent affordable housing development on the site. (The project, sponsored by Transition Projects, will offer studios and single-room-occupancy units at rents affordable to low-income and very-low-income individuals—people who may be at risk of homelessness.) It’s not yet clear whether the village will relocate or disband if those plans proceed.

Right 2 Dream Too has a free two-year lease for its new site on a parking lot owned by the Portland Bureau of Transportation near the Moda Center. But its future is predicated on the city continuing to extend its housing and homeless “state of emergency,” which allows a zoning variance for temporary shelters.  

At Dignity Village, 17 years after its founding, Katie Mays, a caseworker from nonprofit JOIN, assists residents with finding permanent housing. Its residents remain quasi-independent, maintaining a community of 53 people on just $27,000 total expenditures per year.

How long will Dignity Village be there?

“I don’t know,” Mays says, with a sigh. The question, for her, stirs long-held dreams.

“I really kind of oscillate, depending on what kind of day we’re having, as to whether or not they’ll sort of make it to this aspirational Dignity 2.0, which is where they own their own village.”

The movement continues to expand. Architect Mark Lakeman, who worked with Dignity Village in its early days as cofounder of the City Repair Project, says the village concept is becoming a Portland export. Lakeman’s architecture and planning firm Communitecture is working with San Jose, Calif. to create a series of 10 homeless villages there, and with Clackamas County to create a homeless village specifically for veterans.

Hope Village is being constructed in Medford, a permanent village named Emerald Village is going up in Eugene, and others are being built as far afield as Scotland and Australia. Lakeman sees the new Kenton village as the heir to a line that stretches back to Dignity Village.

“If we hadn’t had Dignity Village, we could never have had Right 2 Dream Too,” Lakeman says. “If we hadn’t had Right 2 Dream Too, and Hazelnut Grove, we could never have had Kenton Women’s Village. “We’re kind of seeing this evolution playing out before our eyes.”

Published June 20, 2017

This story is part of  an investigative series produced by the Open: Housing Journalism Collaborative, a joint project of Open: Housing, Pamplin Media Group and KGW. Look for other stories in this and related series at OpenHousing.net.

 

 

 

 

 

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