A Place For Dignity

Almost no one lives in this part of Portland, Oregon, except for the inmates of the state prison. It's seven miles from the city center and two miles from the nearest convenience shop, a patchwork of farm fields, warehouses, and manufacturing plants at the end of the airport runway. So there was no one to ask for directions.

And it was almost dark—the cold, dripping winter dark that starts midafternoon and doesn't let up until midmorning. I didn't see the yellow Dignity Village flag hanging limp in the rain.

What I did see was a caravan of old cars parked by the side of the road—rusted low-riders with a flat tire or two, packed with clothes, radios, and household stuff. A few people huddled nearby, talking and joking, taking the cold and the rain as it came. I'd found Dignity Village, Portland's tough, innovative, organized, homeless community.

Back when Reagan was president, Americans were shocked by homelessness. That our citizens were living in cardboard boxes over steam vents was disgraceful in a rich country like ours, we said then. In 1986, 5 million Americans joined hands across the country to raise money for the homeless. In 1987, Congress passed the McKinney Act—the only federal law ever passed to help the homeless.

In the decade that followed, homelessness doubled and in some cities, tripled. The National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) estimates that in 1999, 700,000 people were homeless on any given night, and up to 2 million experience homelessness during the year. At the same time, affordable housing dried up. In 1998, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, a minimum wage worker in a median city would have to work 87 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

As homelessness increased, Americans got annoyed. We began replacing the so-called safety net with welfare-to-work programs at the federal and state levels. In cities across the country, we passed laws called something like “quality of life laws” or “city beautification laws.” No sitting on the sidewalk, no sleeping in public. No sitting. No standing. No loitering. No camping. No carrying a blanket in public. Of the 49 cities surveyed by the NLCHP in 1999, 73 percent were enacting or enforcing ordinances like these—up from 26 percent in 1994. In most American cities, it's now a crime to have nowhere to go.

I meet Ibrahim Mubarekin at the Dignity Village recreation center—a city bus donated by one of the village's benefactors. Someone has rigged up a TV, and six or seven people are watching from the back of the bus. It's pleasant inside—dry and for the moment, warm. Every few minutes, when it gets cold, someone starts up the bus and lets it run for a while.

Mubarek is a slender, African-American Muslim who wears a coufee and tinted glasses. His soft drawl and gentle demeanor gives no hint of the trouble he's caused around Portland with his notions of dignity for the homeless.

Mubarek is the elected spokesperson of the village, but he's really a combination father/priest/friend to the people there. Sixteen years ago, he worked as a copy machine repairman and owned a big house and fancy car—the whole nine yards. Devastated by a divorce, he's been homeless off and on ever since.

The idea for a community of homeless people began to crystalize in Mubarek's mind when he arrived in Portland a couple years ago, homeless. He stayed in shelters for a while but was lucky enough to find a job and an apartment. He was doing okay, but his friends weren't. Every time he went back to visit the shelters, he found the same people there.

So he started lobbying. “Why y'all still going in that vicious cycle—from jail to shelter to the streets, from jail to shelter to the streets, round and around?” he'd ask the folks staying in the shelter. “I got the day off,” he'd tell them, “and I can go with you to help you fill out an application.” He laughs to remember the reception he got. “Pretty soon they'd roll their eyes when they saw me comin'!” On one of his lobbying visits, he discovered that several others were lobbying, too.

So they got together—a small group of homeless people and their supporters—and started brainstorming. What could they do? How could they help people get on their feet?

The approach they decided on was as simple as it was revolutionary. They asked the homeless people themselves what they needed.

Dignity Village was their answer.

Our traditional response to the problem of homelessness is to call for more shelter beds. But shelters are not a solution, Mubarek says. They simply warehouse the homeless. And since there are far more homeless people than shelter beds (in Portland, three our of four people seeking shelter can't be accommodated), the beds are assigned arbitrarily—on a first-come-first-served basis or by some form of lottery, usually for only one night at a time.

The resulting system is a trap—once you're in it, it's hard to get out. There's no way to ensure that you'll have a place to stay, even for one night. If you're lucky enough to get a bed in a shelter, you'll be turned out at 5:30 in the morning, rain or shine, to begin the difficult process of finding shelter again. And you have nowhere to leave your belongings, which is a big problem if you do land a job interview. So when you're homeless and living in shelters, you're simply too preoccupied with the problems of surviving to rebuild your life.

Worse, Mubarek says, is what shelter life does to your confidence that you can take care of yourself. “Shelters institutionalize you mentally. They tell you what to eat, when to eat, when to go to bed, when to wake up, what clothes to wear. They feed you, they take your plate. And all the time you're doin' nothin'.”

Dignity Village is fundamentally different. It's a self-governing community of about 60 homeless people who take care of themselves by taking care of each other. They build their own shelters, with the help of volunteers, from donated, recycled materials; they recycle their trash; they decide on rules by consensus and enforce them, including a rule that prohibits alcohol and drugs on the premises and a requirement that everyone help with the chores; and they help each other find jobs and apartments.

At Dignity Village, all the residents are expected to pull their share of the load. And that, says Mubarek, is why self-respect takes root here.

More than 500 Dignity Village “graduates” have found jobs and apartments in the last year, Mubarek says. Many have beaten drug and alcohol problems. Two women have gotten their children back. One young couple—working now, with an apartment of their own—is back at Dignity today, visiting.

Mubarek and the other Dignity Village founders are convinced that most people just need another chance. “When you was learning to walk—practicing to walk—you kept fallin' and your mother or father'd lift you up. You fall, you get back up. Now, in society, you fall, you're not allowed to get back up.”

But Dignity Village is different. “At Dignity, when people are down, we say, ‘Come on, let's get up together.'"

It's still gray and rainy the next morning, when Mubarek gives me a tour of the village. This site, their seventh in the last year, is a square of asphalt surrounded by chainlink fence—a parking lot that's part of the city's composting operation. Today, there's an inch of standing water on the pavement, so pallets serve as sidewalks in the wettest areas.

Residents don't like this location, but they've seen worse. They've camped in deep mud where they were attacked by nesting geese; they've lived beneath an overpass and had junk thrown down on top of them. At one site, people drove cars through the village.

Dignity Village consists of several clusters of huts built from pallets and plywood, covered with blue tarps and clear plastic. Each group of shelters shares a common cooking area where a raised plywood counter accommodates several camp stoves where today someone is cooking bacon. An unheated trailer serves as headquarters—complete with a computer, a phone, a storage room, and a long table where coffee and donated food sometimes appear. All of these structures are, of necessity, portable.

Since this is a work day, a Saturday two weeks before Christmas, the village is chaotic, like the set of a big film. Young Americorps volunteers in insulated overalls have arrived to finish shelters and prepare them for the possibility of ice storms. Construction is under way on showers near the portable johns the city has provided—the plywood stalls will be handicapped accessible. “We've had as many as six people in chairs at one time,” Mubarek says.

A small crew directed by Mark Lakeman, an architect with Portland's City Repair Project, is at work on a beautiful geodesic dome that he designed. When it's covered with clear plastic, it will be the greenhouse-like center of the community. They will call it The Heart. Today residents have put up a Christmas tree there and decorated it with tiny lights.

Adding to the noise and bustle are dogs and cats—almost as many as there are people. Pets make better companions for people than people do, Mubarek says, and shelters don't allow them.

In Dignity Village, the business of living is very visible. People laugh, complain, and argue in the cold and wet, surrounded by animals, sharing what food comes their way, and facing the basic problems of winter and survival together. It's like a medieval village.

Exactly, says Mark Lakeman.

Villages are humans' natural habitat, Lakeman says, and every element of village life was completely different from our modern lives. Villagers lived by cycles related to the natural world, in space arranged by function. “They had a sense of a common vision that they created—they built their culture as they built their village.”

When Lakeman got involved with what was then called Camp Dignity, he noticed that the ancient vision of village matched the residents' dream of what Dignity might become. So he encouraged them to think of themselves differently. “If you project to yourselves and to the outside world that you are a tent camp, then that's what you will be,” he told them. “But if you think of yourselves as a more culturally relevant and expansive identity like a village, you'll be creating something that can affect the world.”

That vision of community resonated with the residents. Today, Dignity Villagers are politically organized and connected to a strong network of local supporters. With Lakeman's help, they drafted a detailed vision statement, complete with architectural drawings, of a permanent settlement neardowntown and a four-stage plan for its implementation. They lobby City Hall, give talks at schools and churches, and negotiate with the city over their future. Ultimately, they plan to help people in other cities start villages of their own.

Portland's city council has been impressed with the political support the villagers have mustered. So much so that they've agreed to convert the village into a one-year pilot project, a first, tentative step towards a permanent place for Dignity.

“We all understand what this means outside our borders,” says Dog Dave, who lives in the village with his dog, Magic. “We are breaking ground.”

They are, indeed. They're building an improbable-sounding dream—a green, sustainable urban village, democratically and sustainably run. And they're an unlikely bunch of dreamers—the powerless, the isolated, the hopeless, the homeless.

So it's not all “peaches and flowers” at Dignity Village, as Dog Dave puts it, because humans are flawed, sometimes greedy, dishonest, drunk, violent. But Dog Dave, for one, is more than glad to be a part of the experiment: “I am ecstatic! I have waited years for this. This is what we're meant to do—to find new solutions. To get creative. We're an amazing species if we put our mind to it.”

Carol Estes, formerly managing editor at YES!, is a free-lance writer in Suquamish, Washington.
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