In a Tiny House Village, Portland's Homeless Find Dignity


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Categories: Tiny House


As cities search for solutions to homelessness, Portland’s Dignity Village offers 60 men and women community and safety.

On a frigid January morning, a tour through Portland’s Dignity Village follows the same path its residents are required to travel. All were, or are, homeless.

Newcomers to this homeless refuge huddle in the warming station, a small portable with photos of smiling former residents and where they are required to stay during a 60-day probationary period.

They hope to graduate to a small makeshift home like Karen, a three-month resident whose boisterous laugh carries through the village.

Should it become a permanent home, they may find themselves in the position of Rick Proudfoot, a longtime resident who works in the site’s main office, keeping track of finances.

If they’re really lucky, they may end up like Lisa Larson, Dignity Village’s CEO.

A peppy forty-something, she’s lived at Dignity Village the last six years after falling into homelessness to escape an abusive husband. She initially thought she’d stay no more than a few months. Today, Larson, who has been in her position for a year, can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“There’s a real sense of pride here, a real sense of community that you don’t find elsewhere,” she says.

Called an “intentional community” by its members and a homeless encampment by outsiders, Dignity Village is a step toward curbing Portland’s skyrocketing homeless population.

Located in northeast Portland, Dignity Village is a self-governed gated community, which currently serves 60 people on any given night—the city limits the number—and provides shelter in the form of tiny houses built mainly from donated and recycled materials.


The village emerged in the winter of 2000 as a tent city called Camp Dignity. Stationed in downtown Portland, it served as an act of protest against Portland’s then-ban on homeless encampments.

But it moved. After more than a year of public controversy, the city sanctioned a permanent campsite on Sunderland Yard, city-owned land six miles west of the Portland International Airport.

The village has resided on this site since 2004, when advocates and officials reached a compromise on a location after contentious negotiations, but there are no more tents.

Now officially a nonprofit, Dignity Village is governed by a democratically elected council of nine residents, who are responsible for day-to-day decisions; all residents can vote on big decisions, like whether to remove a resident or enter into contracts with service providers, in town hall-style meetings. On a typical night, it provides food, housing, bathrooms, and a mailing address for nearly 60 adults, who pay $35 a month in rent and would otherwise be taking their chances alone sleeping on park benches or city streets.

This is why community may be Dignity Village’s most essential offering.

“It’s really what sets people apart from other homeless shelters and encampments, above all else,” says Katie Mays, who works as a social worker at Dignity Village three days a week.

The village’s five rules help cultivate that sense of community: no violence, no theft, no alcohol or drugs within a one-block radius, no constant disruptive behavior, and all residents must contribute at least 10 hours per week of work for village upkeep.

No children are allowed at the village because background checks are not a requirement to stay there. Larson says this allows the village to avoid any problems that could arise if any resident, also known as a “villager,” were a registered sex offender or had a violent criminal history.

Seattle, which in November declared a state of emergency to tackle its own homeless crisis, recently moved to expand micro-housing communities for the chronically homeless; The Seattle Times cited Dignity Village as a huge influence on the city’s decision.

The city has its own problems with pervasive homelessness. The issue prompted Mayor Ed Murray to deliver a rare televised address on Tuesday. Moments before he went on air, two people were killed and three others wounded in a shooting at a homeless encampment in the city’s Sodo district.

Murray recently met with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales to discuss how their cities are grappling with homelessness. On Tuesday, he called on the city council to provide an additional $49 million to increase services for Seattle’s roughly 3,000 homeless, which would include additional campsites. The city already spent $50 million on homelessness last year, the most in its history.

It is one of the best (and cheapest) bets to curb homelessness, at least for now.

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