THE SHARP, sour smell of the neighboring compost facility hangs over Dignity Village, and a cat prowls the labyrinthine series of raised community vegetable gardens. Dignity, situated west of the airport, is the country's first city-sanctioned homeless encampment, home to nearly 60 people transitioning out of street life, and right now street artist Klutch and his girlfriend Taylor Stevenson are painting a maritime scene on Dignity Village Chairman Randy Curl's house. It's an image Curl requested, and when completed it'll serve as a pilot for a mural project which aims to decorate the homes of those Dignity residents who want a fresh coat of paint and something nice to look at. The idea is that the murals will give Dignity residents points of solidarity when transitioning from homelessness to housed living.
Curl's house resembles a fishing shack, and it's where he lives with his partner Cindy Davis. The maritime image that's growing on the walls of their home matches the couple's personalities well. Davis is chatty and optimistic. She runs the community gardens along with several services outside Dignity, which help pay her $20/month membership fee. Curl is stoic, and speaks in short sentences. I offer him a cigarette. "I've got my own," he says. Curl is slow and steady like the ocean; Davis, like the fish swimming in it—and so they've dedicated the image to their wall.
Dr. Kate Leonard, a specialist in art therapy and psychology, says this maritime image is a good choice for a community building. Not only does the imagery relate to Portland's history, but it isn't overly personal. "It's important that people are included in designing the murals," says Leonard, but because Dignity is designed as a transitional point and not a place to establish permanent housing, "you don't want 'Kim and Jeff's place' written on a home." You want images with some elasticity—images that will give future Dignity residents a sense of community, but not necessarily one of ownership.
Davis has a healthy relationship with community and the temporary nature of her current housing. She flips through a photo album of Dignity residents, telling dozens of stories of both success and failure. It's immediately clear that she has an intimate connection with just about everyone who has passed through the encampment during her three-year stay. But as connected as she is to the Dignity community, she and Curl plan to move into an apartment by January of next year. Davis and Curl's success—and the success of the community at large—is humbling.
This effect seems universal. Klutch says that when coming to Dignity, he had an I'll-paint-what-I-want attitude, which quickly dissolved. "That's not what this is about," he says. "One guy came up when we were painting and told me, 'I love what you're doing, but I like mine the way it is,'" he laughs. "That was the best." This opting out is an important point. Some people want their homes to be more traditional, as a way of expressing the traditional position they hope to hold in society.
Many residents, though, opt in. "There's a woman who wants an Australian Shepherd on her house," says Klutch. "There's one guy that wants his house to look like a hippie bus, and another that wants camo." But there's more that needs to happen before these murals can be actualized. Klutch and Stevenson are looking for paint donations—Miller Paint provided the materials for the pilot mural—and they're also looking for other muralists to get in on the project. For those interested, Klutch and Stevenson can be contacted via redsemillaroja.org.