Five years after its informal start under the Fremont Bridge, Dignity Village has transformed into a self-governing community now negotiating a formal lease with the city for space through at least 2010 in Northeast Portland.
One veteran of that homeless camp at the Sunderland Recycling Facility is 47-year-old Laura Brown, who came to Dignity Village a year and a half ago. Brown says she ended up on the street because depression and anxiety combined with inability to pay for treatment kept her from getting a job.
She chose Dignity Village because it allows couples to stay together, unlike most shelters. While her two grown children live in Utah, she calls Portland home, which in this case is a 10-by-10-foot plywood structure where she lives with her boyfriend.
Brown spoke with WW about why Dignity Village should remain when critics say it's both unsafe and a low-expectations dead end for homeless people.
WW: Isn't Dignity Village in a Catch-22—if it's too nice, people use this as their permanent home, and if it's not nice enough, it's not a functional place to live?
Laura Brown: If you come here from the streets, this is a big step up. But if you've just lost your apartment or just lost your house and just became homeless and come straight from your house to here, then it's a step down.
Which category do you fall in?
I came from sleeping in a doorway in "Crack Alley" [Northwest 5th and Glisan] and sneaking behind the dumpster at Greyhound to use the bathroom. It's a big step up for me from where I was. But we've had people that come here that just think this is a horrible way to live, because they've come right out of an apartment. This is kind of like camping. It is camping. And I know, whenever I do get in a home, I don't want to see another propane heater in my life.
Can children live here?
No. There are a couple reasons. One is we're under construction and it's dangerous. And also because Dignity Village doesn't discriminate for background history on people. If people have a drug history, a criminal history, a sexual history, we don't discriminate against that for adults. So we could have SOs [sexual offenders] in here.
So knowing there could be sex offenders around, do you feel safe?
I feel very safe here. I have a boyfriend. There are 35 or 38 people living here right now and only nine or 10 of them are women, but I've felt safe since I very first got here. I don't feel that on the streets; it's very scary. And, here, it hasn't been scary at all. I know that at any time, if anybody messed with me here, there'd be 20 guys to my defense in a second.
Why do some people who have the ability to move on choose to stay here?
My kids live in Utah. They want me to come back really bad. They have an apartment, an extra bedroom, and they'd help me find work there.... [But] I want to stay around [Dignity Village] for a while.
I want to see it grow. I want to see it succeed, not just for me, but for all the people that are going to come after me, all the people that are out there right now in the doorways. We still have room here, we've just got to get our building done. Every day that I'm here and I'm warm and I crawl under my covers, I think about those people out there. And it's raining and I know that their blankets are getting wet and they're sitting there shivering and they're crying and they're cold and the police are coming and harassing them and chasing them. And this isn't the ultimate, best place to be, but it's much better than where they're at.
Dignity Village (www.outofthedoorways.org) has up to 60 residents at any one time.
Dignity Village estimates that about 800 residents have passed through the homeless encampment in the past five years. The village does not track ex-residents' long-term success in getting jobs and/or permanent housing.