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

Categories: Tiny House

Elsewhere, cities are trying out the model of Dignity Village. In Eugene, Oregon, Opportunity Village has lifted the concept wholesale. Like Dignity Village, it is mostly self-governed, its residents are required to adhere to the same five rules, and tiny homes dot its landscape.

“We didn’t feel it was necessary to reinvent the wheel,” says Andrew Heben, project director for Square One Villages, which partially funds the Eugene development.

Heben, whose book Tent City Urbanism frequently cites Dignity Village as a model for sustainable housing for the homeless, says there are a few key differences between the two, pointing to one in particular: Dignity Village allows its residents to be members of their nonprofit entity, which can lead to logistical challenges.

“Since many residents eventually transition out of there, that means new people can completely undo rules that others have put in place,” says Heben.

In contrast, Opportunity Village is overseen by a separate board consisting of residents, clergy, and other community members.

Dignity Village’s influence also has spread to Nashville, where a micro-housing community called Sanctuary has cropped up. In a recent Al-Jazeera report, residents said Sanctuary provides them with “dignity, security, and a place to plot their futures.”

What the residents of these communities hold in common are the bonds forged from shared experience—of finally finding a welcome environment after being discarded and stigmatized by larger society.

From abusive home to nurturing community: Lisa Larson

Lisa Larson can easily recall the day she first became homeless. The event shares an anniversary with her decision to finally leave an abusive husband after years of emotional and physical turmoil.

Larson spent two years camping out on concrete sidewalks and inside abandoned buildings.

She and her current husband, Scott Larson, discovered Dignity Village while serving time in a Milwaukie, Oregon, jail for chronically violating the city’s ban against homeless camping.

Another homeless person there spoke about a place where people not only were treated with respect, but were instilled with a sense of pride and community.

With curiosity sparked, Larson arrived at the village six years ago, thinking she’d stay no more than six months. Today, she is the village’s chief executive officer, functioning as its official spokesperson.

“When I first came here, I felt like a nobody. With my new husband and Dignity Village, I am somebody. I am a domestic violence survivor. Without this place, I don’t know where or what I’d be,” she says.

Now certain of both, Larson has found not just shelter but peace and purpose that until six years ago eluded her.

The homeless population in Portland has steadily increased since 2007 even while national rates have dropped by 11 percent during the same period. The Oregonian has characterized it as a problem “spinning out of control.”

The city estimates that 4,000 men, women, and children are without shelter most nights in Multnomah County. The image of people emerging from tents and napping on benches is often the first one to greet visitors outside the city’s train station.

Although city and county officials have recently pledged more than $30 million to combat homelessness, the situation persists.

“We’re victims of our own success,” says Josh Alpert, chief of staff to Hales.

Alpert says Portland’s problems stem from three major issues: housing demand that exceeds supply; rising rent prices in response to an influx of new residents; and a lack of financial resources to dedicate to the homeless population.

The city has at least 17 dedicated shelters for the homeless. One of its newest, the eight-story Bud Clark Commons, was built by the city in June 2011 and houses about 150 people. It cost taxpayers $47 million, a price tag that continues to anger some residents and business owners.

Portland’s city council recently approved $1 million for a new shelter.

The dilemma has forced city officials to consider new approaches and revisit old ones that have proved successful.

One has been its partnership with Dignity Village, which began three years after the village officially became a nonprofit in December 2001. Today the collaboration is all the more attractive to a cash-strapped city budget: The village’s annual operations amount to just $27,750.

Besides granting public land, the city provides funding for a dedicated social worker, Mays, to help members with job searches, resume writing, and transportation to medical and counseling appointments. Mays also functions as a liaison to the city.

Dealings between Dignity Village and the city haven’t always been smooth.

“We’ve been in a constant state of anxiety with the city,” says Proudfoot.

The city has imposed rules, such as the two-year limit on how long a resident can stay, for example. And, Proudfoot says, there’s always the possibility that the city could reclaim the village's land.

Many Dignity Village members would prefer no interaction with the city, Proudfoot says, because they find its system too bureaucratic and hard to navigate, which they blame for leaving many of them to sleep on the pavement prior to become villagers.

But they view the city’s involvement as necessary to reach their goal of owning land where members can build permanent settlements, not just tents and make-do tiny homes.

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