Over the previous eight months, about 80 men and women had made a temporary home on public lands in Northwest Portland. But after negotiations with the city failed regarding a permanent location, Dignity Village was kicked out from underneath the bridge and moved temporarily to a remote site near the airport.
Neighboring the Columbia Correctional Institute and ringed by chain-link fencing, some characterized the new spot as a concentration camp. With only one periodic bus line and an asphalt surface that collects massive rain puddles, the site is less than an idyllic paradise.
"A lot of people thought that we were smashed up, but we weren't," says J.P., a resident at Dignity Village.
Six weeks after the move, Dignity Village has emerged even more determined to secure a permanent location and is more organized as a community. Drafting by-laws and establishing a management protocol with a "village counsel," they have made calculated gestures towards legally incorporating. They also have set up a leather working shop on site and sell belts (as well as coffee) daily at PSU.
Yet, in spite of coalescing as a group and making all the good faith efforts requested by the city, they are facing another deadline: When the city moved Dignity Village to its current location, the arrangement was given a finite period of 60 days. During that time, Dignity Village--if they wanted to continue--was ordered to find a site mutually agreeable to them and city officials. Time runs out on Thursday, November 1.
"We've consistently shown sites [to the city]," says J.P.. But, he explains, those sites have been rejected. With time running out, they are looking at both public and private land that they can rent.
"We don't want a charity deal, but a business agreement," states J.P., pointing out that paying rent will provide Dignity Village's residents with certain rights as legal tenants. With purple and green Mardi Gras beads slung around his neck and long dark hair tucked behind his ears, he smiles easily and adds, "Our objective is not to fight with the city, but to have a village."
During the 40 days of their tenure at the new location, the homeless have set up an impressive spread of pup tents, tarps, and semi-permanent structures. A fifty-foot tower shaped like a miniature Eiffel Tower protrudes from the middle of the camp; at top flies a green Colombian flag to symbolize a sister squatter camp they have adopted in South America.
Wood pallets covered with plywood have been assembled across a 50-by-50 foot area to raise tents off the asphalt-covered ground. There is a kitchen area and sinks with running water. A massive blue tarp that looks like frozen ocean waves covers several tents and the leather-working shop. About 65 residents currently live at Dignity Village; since the move, 10 have found work and 11 have homes.
"I know that I grew up a lot [from the move], and that we really bonded," says J.P. A few puppies bound through camp and nearby, in the settling autumn evening, two men fry chicken on an open grill. "Conditions come because you organize," continues J.P. "Part of this is informing people; the other is saying 'fuck you' and standing up for your rights."
That determination and tenacity has begun to impress the right people at City Hall. As a staff member for Councilman Erik Sten, Marshall Runkel has served as point guard for Dignity Village's concerns with the city.
"The bar is really high for using public land and even more so for an experimental homeless program," explains Runkel. Yet he admits that he has been impressed by the efforts made by Dignity Village over the past several weeks. "It has been a qualitative difference," says Runkel. "It wasn't clear before whether it was a political protest or developing a program to help homeless people."
Yet in spite of winning allies, with less than two weeks before the deadline arrives for Dignity Village's expulsion from their site near the airport, there still are no definite sites for a new location. Runkel says that there will not be any extensions past November 1.