It's been a tough month for the 60-some men and women living in makeshift structures at Dignity Village, the city's notorious homeless encampment near the airport. Aside from record-low temperatures and last week's ice storm, the village has once again come under public scrutiny. Shortly before Christmas, a fire destroyed two buildings.
This disaster inspired a "we-told-you-so" editorial in The Oregonian, essentially stating that it's inhumane for city hall to allow the homeless to live in unsafe conditions. The editorial called Dignity Village "a city-sanctioned disaster waiting to happen." It also prompted conservative talk show host Lars Larson to file a complaint with the city demanding the village be shut down.
The fire started after a candle burned down in a scrap-wood shop. Villagers quickly organized a bucket brigade and extinguished the blaze before the fire department arrived. It could have been much worse, admit villagers. Three months ago, former firefighter and current council member Randy Leonard visited the encampment. He was horrified by a combustible combination of elements at the village: makeshift wood dwellings set closely together, propane heaters, and virtually no fire precautions. After his visit, at Leonard's urging, the villagers installed smoke alarms. Since the fire, they have installed three "fire stations" featuring barrels of rain water.
Yet, in spite of the increased criticism, city council has responded with renewed support for Dignity Village. For the past three years, villagers have been renting the city-owned land for $2,000 a month. But in October, their lease expired. Since then, Dignity Village has been negotiating with council member Erik Sten's office to grant them a more permanent status.
Towards that end, Sten plans to introduce an ordinance to city council that will rezone the area as a campground. With a zoning similar to Kampgrounds of America, says Bob Durston, Sten's Chief of Staff, the village could adhere to attainable fire and building codes. It would also get media naysayers off their back.
In the meantime, villagers hope to send a weekend getaway certificate to Lars Larson as a thank you. They believe that the relentless attention from Larson has translated into sympathy and support. "Lars has kept us in the public eye," says Tim McCarthy, the treasurer for Dignity Village.
Council hopes to pass the resolution within the next few weeks.