An organizer for "Out of the Doorways," a unique program that has set up tents in undisclosed locations around Portland as part of an effort to provide shelter for the city's homeless, Tafari is in charge of recruiting "soldiers" to head up the first dozen or so people who will live in the encampment. But, with a city-wide ordinance banning such camping, it is unclear how long they will be able to maintain a site. On Saturday, December 16, the group set up their first site. Two days later, the police and fire marshall forced them to leave; which they did. In a procession of shopping carts, the group moved to another, undisclosed site. As long as possible, they vowed, they would continue this cat-and-mouse game with the police. In a recent interview, Tafari reflected: "We're not terrorists; we're not even radical. We're just homeless."
Over the past few months, street roots, the media advocate for homeless people, and others who work with the city's homeless population may have come up with a solution to the trying riddle of providing a "home base" for the city's homeless--an ad hoc, semi-permanent outdoor community.
"Every city has people sleeping in doorways," points out Bryan Pollard, managing editor for street roots. "We'd like to see Portland do something to make us a leader in the nation and find an alternative."
Although difficult to count, estimates in Portland range from 3000-6000 people without housing per year; 2000-3000 on any given night. Officials and advocates agree that the city's shelter beds cannot accommodate all the people who need them. In spite of the enthusiasm from the city's homeless and their advocates for the so-called "Dignity Village," the group already has run afoul of an anti-camping city ordinance that has been in effect since 1981. The ordinance prohibits "camping" in certain public places. Defining "camping" broadly as "any place where any beddingor any stove or fire, is placed, established, or maintained," the ordinance has restricted options for the homeless.
While participants at a recent meeting of Dignity Village pointed out that the anti-camping ordinance is not enforced at events like campouts for Blazers games and the Rose Parade, they did not count on such lax enforcement. Within forty-eight hours of establishing a site under the Broadway Bridge, the police chased out the homeless camp; allegedly even threatening to arrest them for possessing stolen goods, their shopping carts.
The participants said they expect to be asked to move often. In preparation, organizers have selected numerous sites around town, targeting city-owned public property, and staying in proximity to downtown for the convenience of participants.
In 1998, a different group led a similar campaign for a "Tent City." That crusade, however, was primarily a protest against the anti-camping city ordinance. This time, Pollard asserts, the plan has a longer-term vision in place. In addition, more homeless people are involved in the planning for this year's campaign than in 1998--a fact Pollard sees as significant. "You can't have any viable campaign advocating for the rights of street people without street people," Pollard stresses.
Dignity Village is putting down stakes at a time when the camping ordinance is at the forefront of the minds of some of the city's biggest politicos. The anti-camping ordinance has gone into a sort of legal limbo: Recently Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen Gallagher ruled that the ordinance is unconstitutional, because it limits a person's rights to freedom of movement. The District Attorney's office has vowed to appeal Judge Gallagher's opinion; a tact that Mayor Katz and City Commissioner Erik Sten, who sits on the Bureau of Housing, have publicly thrown their support behind.
Bob Durston, Chief of Staff for Commissioner Sten's office admits that currently there aren't enough beds for the number of people who need them. But, adds Durston, the city is "trying to minimize that inequity." Over the past seven years, the city has spent almost $270 million on affordable housing.
Durston contends that the cost of maintaining a permanent camp is close to the same amount needed for an indoor shelter. In addition, health and safety issues concern neighborhoods and city officials alike.
Some of Dignity Village organizers' plans for running their community may placate those concerns, however. For example, the encampment plan calls for excluding those with drug or alcohol problems. Pollard points out that such exclusions will not only contribute to the safety of the encampment, but will serve what he believes to be the portion of the homeless population that ironically is most under-served by current programs: the sober and drug-free homeless. The Oregonian recently reported that 2 out of 3 of the homeless have addiction problems; Dignity Village wants to serve the other 1 out of 3.The local service agency JOIN, which works to transition people from the streets to housing, is positioned as a possible middle ground between the city and the village. Mayor Katz and Commissioner Sten recently announced they'll raise the city's contribution to JOIN.
Although working with the city, JOIN Executive Director Rob Justus believes the anti-camping ordinance is "a waste of time" because it doesn't aid in moving people into affordable housing. Justus maintains that people don't need to go through shelters; instead JOIN emphasizes a direct move to permanent housing. JOIN follows people they have transitioned over the following twelve months, helping them to stay housed and to find ways to pay their bills. In 1999 JOIN realized an 85% retention rate among those whom they transitioned into housing.JOIN has agreed to work with Dignity Village participants in the same way it works with other clients. Justus states, "As long as there's a strong component of helping people transition out of camping into housing, I'm not opposed [to the village]." Because of massive need, the village will not duplicate services already in place. "On the minimum," Justus observes, "it [will create] good dialogue on issues that people don't want to talk about."