Dignity Village – More Than a Tent City

Shortly after moving to Portland, I began working within the city’s continuum of homeless services. While I had some experience with this in Philly, through street counts and staffing emergency shelters, my experience in Portland has been more entrenched.

One misconception I held was that if someone was on the street, they were avoiding the shelter system due to a variety of valid concerns. This may be true for some folks experiencing homelessness, but many people are interested in warm, clean places to sleep and meet their basic needs. The problem is capacity: there are simply not enough beds to house those on the street, largely due to a lack of capital and operational funding. In Atlanta, where thousands have no beds in shelter and the homeless are defacto banned from the city center, one solution has been large warehousing of the homeless. It is not pretty or comfortable, but it is a shade better than sleeping on the street. Most of the funding for those shelters are through private contributions. Our country refuses to fulfill the basic human right of housing for all. Instead, we see homelessness as an inconvenience, an eyesore.  We criminalize homelessness and push it further to the outskirts of society.  As long as we cannot see it, it must not exist.

Along with an incredible list of non-profits, who have taken on the task of providing basic needs and transitioning the homeless to affordable housing, there is also the ground-up solution of tent cities.  Tent cities allow safe spaces for homeless housing. Tent cities have their own governance, all the officers and decision-makers are also residents. Tent cities provide a source of autonomy that many shelters (once you wait 3 months for a bed) cannot provide. Many tent cities are operated on unused private or public land, sometimes in violation of property laws. It seems that a simple solution would be the provisioning of public land for this use, but because tent cities require a degree of visibility, there is resistance from more affluent citizens.

The Pacific Northwest has gradually accepted tent cities as part of the solution toward ending homelessness.  Such efforts in the Northeast have generally been installed as protest, although there is now a tent city in Camden, NJ. Dignity Village in Portland is part of a movement to create tent cities across the country.  Here are 2 videos that give a glimpse into the world of a tent city:

Working in the Winter Warming Center, a more temporary and crude housing option for homeless residents, I’ve seen how much can be done with little resources. We’re able to house about 100 homeless residents for about $1000 a night. Surely we can come up with the funding to support all of our homeless, if we can muster up the political will to do so.