One-of-a-kind plan for homeless is at a crossroads

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

PORTLAND, Ore. -- On a one-acre patch of asphalt near the airport, about 80 homeless people are living in shelters slapped together out of scavenged planks, plastic, sheetrock and cardboard. But this is no ordinary shantytown.

Dignity Village, as it is called, is an unusual social experiment: a government-sanctioned encampment for the homeless.

Besides holding a city lease, it has its own government, maintains a Web site and operates as a nonprofit corporation. Residents get free legal advice from local lawyers, medical aid from a homeless shelter, and financial support from a national network of charitable donors.

"There really isn't another model in the country that is as well-organized as Dignity Village," said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. "It's pretty revolutionary."

Its most recent lease having expired at the end of October, residents have asked the city to extend their stay for up to 10 years. They have also requested that the city stop charging rent for the site and make thousands of dollars in improvements at the location.

The request has set off a debate among city officials over whether to sink money into the project or put an end to the whole experiment and encourage homeless people to go to shelters instead.

Portland has an estimated 2,000 homeless people, and 20 homeless shelters run by the city and private organizations.

Other cities generally do not tolerate large-scale encampments of homeless people. In October, Seattle cracked down on "The Jungle," a homeless camp in the woods. In Anchorage, Alaska, authorities cleared out about 50 sites in May because of the danger posed by the homeless people's campfires.

"It's a good resource that's helped a lot of vulnerable and lost people get back on their feet," said City Commissioner Erik Sten, one of Dignity Village's biggest supporters.

"We've never had a rape here. We've never had a murder," said village chairman Jack Tafari. "If a girl goes 'peep,' there's 12 big, hairy guys there in a second."

Villagers are required to contribute to the camp's upkeep, either through chores or by working outside Dignity Village.

"This is not utopia," Howard said. "It's not where I really want to be. But it's better than a lot of places I've been in."

The residents are being allowed to stay until a deal is worked out on their proposal.

Seventeen-year-old Cat Spry lives at Dignity Village with her mother and father. Spry is working to get her high school diploma.

"My options were the street or the village," she said. "And thank God the village was there."

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