For over three hours, residents told similar stories about how Dignity Village gives the homeless a home. They were hoping to convince city council to rezone the parking lot where the homeless encampment is currently located and turn it into a camping site. This new designation would allow Dignity Village to stay put for the next decade.
(Only one person stepped forward to speak against Dignity Village, saying that the homeless encampment was not in the best interest of "our city." He later identified himself as being from Oregon City.)
For the past three years, Dignity Village has been a notorious reminder that Portland fails to adequately provide help for the estimated 2,000 homeless men and women who reside here. There are currently only 400 spaces available in local shelters.
In the summer of 2001, a ragtag group pitched tents underneath the Fremont Bridge and declared the space to be their "Dignity Village." Eventually, city hall chased them from site to site, before finally conceding to provide a small patch of asphalt near the airport. But what was meant to be a temporary solution is still going strong after two years. To the surprise of city government, the homeless encampment has been stubborn, resilient and, above all, helpful to those needing help.
On Thursday, council members Erik Sten and Randy Leonard presented a resolution to rezone the parking lot. From the get-go, it was clear the resolution would pass by a vote of at least 3-2. In October, Leonard visited Dignity Village and expressed concerns about the safety of the site. When the residents responded with fire-safety measures, Leonard began to enthusiastically sing the village's praises. On Thursday, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and even Mayor Vera Katz was in an unusually giddy mood. In the end, only council member and mayoral hopeful Jim Francesconi voted against the resolution.
Francesconi has publicly stated his opposition to Dignity Village, saying he believes that allowing the homeless to stay in makeshift housing is not a humane gesture from city council. On Thursday, those viewpoints were addressed head-on.
One woman with salt-and-pepper dreadlocks told city council that "Dignity Village is better than humane, it is human." She went on to say that Francesconi's opinion of Dignity Village as a substandard solution was "like telling a homeless person who has bread to look for cake."
Although the majority of the testimony on Thursday was soft-spoken and optimistic, there were several other barbed jabs at Francesconi. About a year ago, city council was considering whether to extend Dignity Village's lease. At the time, Francesconi gave a rambling explanation for his "no" vote, commenting that he would never need to worry about his children being homeless. It was a statement that stuck in the craw of homeless advocates.
One woman currently living in Dignity Village pointed at Francesconi and explained how health problems had sent her life and finances into a tailspin. Her father had owned three businesses, and she herself had been comfortably employed until only a few years ago. "Never say never," she told Francesconi.
After nearly every resident of Dignity Village told their story, the council session drew to a close. Going alphabetically, Francesconi was the first to vote. Instantly, the upbeat mood bottomed out. Francesconi tried to soften his "no" vote, saying that he was "very impressed" and sees that "much good" has been accomplished. And yet--he still voted against Dignity Village.
"Boy," he concluded, "I hope I'm wrong." The rest of council looked on with drawn faces, and proceeded to bring back the affirmative mood, all voting for the resolution.