In the days before Christmas of 2000, a group of homeless people in Portland succeeded in establishing a tent city which garnered a great deal of both opposition and support, and quickly evolved from a group of self-described "outsiders" who practiced civil disobedience, to a self-regulating, city-recognized "campground" as defined by Portland city code.
The Village now features dedicated land near Portland International Airport, elected community officials and crude but functional cooking, social, electric, and sanitary facilities, Dignity Village got its start as a collection of tents and campers "squatting" illegally on unused public land near Downtown Portland.
From confrontation to accommodation
Initially confronted by police for their unlicensed use of public land, the initial group of eight men and women had the benefit of a forceful voice in the person of homeless activist Jack Tafari, and the early support of a few local politicians and associated coverage in the local media. The Portland police department eventually realized that the group, then calling themselves Camp Dignity, was engaged in complicated Constitutional issues of redress of grievance, and deferred the political issue to the local political authority: The Portland City Council and Mayor.
Once established in the gray area of political speech, the fortunes of Dignity Village increased and picked up significant media coverage and popular support, but at the same time, they faced a compromise that the group found hard to swallow, having initially fought against.
After well publicized convoys of homeless people pushing shopping carts migrated from one place to another to accommodate legal technicalities, the Portland City Council agreed on August 22, 2001 to let the group camp at a city lot called Sunderland Yard, some seven miles from downtown in the Sunderland neighborhood at Coordinates: . While Jack Tafari and the group vehemently resisted the location on grounds that it was too far from downtown, they eventually accepted the compromise as an acknowledgment of their legitimacy as a community.
Dignity Village is incorporated in Oregon as a 501(c)(3) membership-based non-profit organization, and is governed by bylaws and a board of directors with an elected chairman and other corporate officers.
Membership is by application review. Dignity Village states that membership is not limited "based on religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, handicap, age, lifestyle choice, previous (criminal) record or economic status."
Because past criminal convictions are not a negative criterion for membership, and because of dangers presented by continuing construction, children are not allowed to reside in the community.
Continued membership is dependent upon following the community's rules of behavior, contained in their membership agreement:
- No violence toward yourself or others.
- No illegal substances or alcohol or paraphernalia on the premises or within a one-block radius.
- No stealing.
- Everyone contributes to the upkeep and welfare of the village and works to become a productive member of the community.
- No disruptive behavior of any kind that disturbs the general peace and welfare of the village.
Membership size varies and is limited by the physical size of the available space at the city yard site. As of January 28, 2016, approximately 60 residents made their home at Dignity Village.
Designated by the Portland City Council as a transitional housing campground, Dignity Village falls under specific State of Oregon building codes governing campgrounds. This provides a legal zoning status. Lack of building codes has shut down many other shanty town/tent cities in the past. Housing in the Dignity Village community previously consisted of tents, hogans, teepees, light wooden shacks, or more substantial structures built using principles of ecofriendly green construction such as strawbale walls and recycled wood. Light clay straw housing was also built in 2003 as part of the City Repair Project's Village Building Convergence.
Among the services offered by Dignity Village for their residents are:
- Sanitary facilities
- Private and communal food and flower gardens
- Communal cooking and refrigeration facilities
- Emergency transportation
- Access to education
- Access to counseling
- Access to television (limited)
- Distribution of donated food, personal items and construction material
- Internet access
- Weekly community meetings
- On-site veterinary and medical care on a scheduled basis by volunteer doctors and nurses
- Access to prescription medication assistance
- Rudimentary first aid
- Access to telephone
Social and political
Dignity Village is aligned in general with the Green Movement although as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, it cannot officially endorse specific parties or candidates. The site has been visited on numerous occasions by politicians from various political parties, and it enjoys a good amount of political support among city politicians and political candidates.
Little information is currently available on police/fire/city service issues, although in 2004, the campsite was allowed to hook up to city sewers for the purpose of sanitary disposal of shower water. Toilet facilities are provided by portable toilets.
In 2004, Kwamba Productions joined as Dignity Village's media partner. Since 2001, it has been working with Dignity Village collecting more than 500 hours of footage, photos, and archival papers while documenting the birth and development of the Dignity Village tent city.
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- Dignity Village
- Campbell, Duncan (October 23, 2003). "America's homeless become new small-town pioneers". The Guardian. Retrieved February 16, 2012.
- Dignity Village
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- The Olympian
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