Sporting dark sunglasses, traditional Arab headgear and a brown-and-white smock, Ibrahim Mubarak looks like a smiling, sun-drenched sheik as he gives Secretary of State Bill Bradbury a tour of Portland's attempt at a homeless utopia.
Wending through a melange of multicolored tents and blue-tarped shacks, past the propane-heated showers and the portable toilets, Mubarak provides a running commentary for the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate.
"There are no drugs, alcohol or paraphernalia allowed in a two-block radius of our site," says Mubarak, speaking in soft, peaceful tones. "We have 24-hour security."
He points out a trailer, like those used as a temporary office at a construction site, equipped with telephones and computers for connecting with relatives and jobs. They stick their heads in a converted Bluebird bus, furnished with a television and VCR for viewing documentaries and educational films. They walk past a community building, with a wood stove, sink and washboard for hand-washing clothes, and a meeting room for the village council, whose members are elected to one-year terms.
Scattered about the village are gardens planted with watermelons, sunflowers, squash, gourds, pumpkins, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and five varieties of peppers. There's a fleet of mountain bikes for the villagers' use, a windmill for generating sustainable electricity. And of course, Mubarak assures the green-leaning Bradbury, the village is committed to recycling.
"Yes!" says Bradbury, enthused. "Right on.... These are all the basic components of modern urban living."
Bradbury isn't the only one to be impressed by Mubarak and to be taken with this homeless homeland, population 65, wedged into an acre of land on a city-owned leaf-composting facility in Northeast Portland. Over the past two years, the struggles of Dignity Village to survive and find a permanent home have captured the imagination of countless Portlanders and others across the nation. Just last month, for example, a group of elementary school kids chipped in and sent a $300 check, and a business owner in Minnesota was so moved that she chipped in $324.
The attention--and the generosity--stems in part from the fact that the village has always been defined by what it would not be: just another tent city, warehousing society's discards. Blending the self-empowerment jargon of the '80s with the eco-talk of the '90s, the village presented itself as a place where residents look beyond their own problems to help others and, in the process, gain their own independence.
Its 29-page vision document, used to win approval from the Portland City Council, is titled "Dignity Village 2001 and Beyond: Outlining Strategies for a Sustainable Future." It is filled with beautiful artists' sketches and diagrams of what a permanent village would look like, as well as talk of "sweat equity" and democratic self-governance, and visions of "community umbrellas," green buildings, "solar fountains," and micro-businesses operated by homeless people to cover costs.
"When we initially approached officials with the concept of Dignity Village, that's what we sold them on," recalls Bryan Pollard, an activist and editor of street roots, Portland's homeless newspaper, who was one of the main driving forces behind the creation of Dignity. "This was not just going to be a bunch of bums sitting around smoking crack. This was going to be much more than that."
But today, as the village contends with a cloud of throat-choking compost dust stirred up by city trucks, and braces itself for winter flooding, it faces its biggest challenge to date: success. The villagers are on the verge of securing what they call "Perma-site." That means a lasting home for the village, but also new pressures--and new scrutiny from its critics.
Already, some of the village's past supporters are beginning to fear that somewhere on the road to utopia, Dignity Village took a wrong turn.
Regarding its progressive vision, "the message is not as clear," says Peter Fry, an influential Portland planning consultant with an affinity for underdogs. He signed on to help the village search for a permanent home, but now he's not sure he'll stay with it. "If they really are an experiment of creating a new type of community, then that is exciting," he says. "But if it's just another homeless encampment, then I'm not really interested in that and I don't think they will have community support."
As for Pollard, he now avoids the tent city he helped create. "The stories that I hear coming out of the village are much the same as the stories I heard in the beginning," he says. "Donations going into the hands of a few, drugs, drinking, people fighting and beating each other up."
The future of Dignity rests in large part on the shoulders of Mubarak, a 46-year-old born-again Muslim who has emerged as the spokesman, spiritual guide and human emblem of the village.
"When Ibrahim came to us as part of the original Dignity Village posse, he said that he wanted to change his life and use his street skills to help homeless people," says Marshall Runkel, the city's liaison to Dignity Village. "Ibrahim can be described as the personification of Dignity Village."
Like many of his villagers, Mubarak is trying to overcome a troubled past.
Born Keith Jackson in 1956, he grew up in Chicago, where he says he ran with gangs and dealt drugs. He says he also went to college and obtained associate's degrees in business and technology. His pattern, he says, was to move from city to city, usually starting out homeless, then finding a job and trying to help others. He converted to Islam eight years ago and has been in Portland for five years.
Here, he was known to police as one of Burnside's crack dealers, convicted on drug charges four times between 1998 and 2000--before telling the city he wanted to change his ways. That fall, a small group, led by a white Rastafarian named Jack Tafari, set up tents on a small patch of land in back of the downtown train station and called for a city-sanctioned tent city. Mubarak was so inspired that he left his apartment to join up.
The Homeless Front, as it was called, grew while moving from place to place. Along the way, it caught the attention of progressive do-gooders and transformed from a protest into a serious effort to house people. Their motto: "Out of the Doorways."
Although camping is banned within Portland city limits, officials were won over by the prospect of society's castoffs moving from sleeping in doorways to getting jobs, thanks to a self-governing, self-sustaining, democratic community of peers.
In articulating this vision, Mubarak was a natural. "He's a good listener," says Pollard. "He is very good with people."
"Ibrahim has a very tender heart," says Gaye Reyes, the village treasurer. "I think he bleeds from his soul for homeless people. He doesn't want them homeless or in drugs or prostitution."
Runkel recalls a meeting with church officials early on, in which, out of nowhere, Mubarak started tossing around biblical quotations that won over his audience. Runkel says "Ibrahim was integral" to Dignity's early success.
With his preaching skills and his Arabic garb, Mubarak says that those who once knew him as a criminal, including the cops, now call him "guru."
"People think I am a messiah because of the way I dress," he said on a recent sunny day, sitting in a chair outside the donations tent. "I never considered myself a leader. I only consider myself an example."
Not a perfect one, he admits.
On March 30, 2001, a villager called 911, claiming Mubarak punched him for challenging the leadership's undemocratic ways. Witnesses told police they saw the man gripping his face as if in pain while Mubarak jumped around him, asking, "You want some more?" Mubarak--who police say identified himself as Keith Robertson--claimed the man called him a racial slur.
Later that year, there were several 911 calls from his then-wife, Patricia Burland, claiming Mubarak had physically abused her. She never displayed injuries, and on one occasion witnesses said Burland was chasing Mubarak, not the other way around.
Besides the 911 calls, there were rumors about drugs and a questionable leadership style. "I received information from sources I trusted that Ibrahim and other folks who run the camp were involved with drinking and drugs and power and control," says Sgt. Jim Powell, a recent retiree who served as police liaison to Dignity Village for its first nine months.
Mubarak says he has only done drugs once since the village began and is willing to take a drug test to prove it. He has not been as good with drinking, he says.
Last month, a police officer driving at 5 am found four villagers in a ditch near Dignity. All four seemed drunk, the officer wrote, including Mubarak, who was sitting next to a pile of "30 to 40 empty Bud Light beer cans."
Mubarak, however, says he had not been drinking and had only gone there to bring the villagers back to the camp.
Mubarak says his personal life is irrelevant in a discussion about Portland's celebrated homeless encampment. But his missteps mirror those of the homeless commune he leads.
Dignity Village has achieved many of its goals and has successfully provided an alternative to the downtown homeless shelters, which turn away couples and pet owners.
Keith and Donnetta Marcott, for example, had 12 cents cash and no gasoline in their tank when they pulled their Mitsubishi under a tree a few blocks from Dignity last October, having driven from California in search of jobs and affordable housing. The village allowed them keep their two cats and dog, while Keith obtained day-labor work with a general contractor.
According to Reyes, Dignity's treasurer, almost half the villagers either work or go to school. Runkel, an aide to City Commissioner Erik Sten, says he knows of 10 villagers who have moved on to housing and employment, and he assumes there must be many more.
There have, however, been problems. Early on, there were no fiscal controls, and before Reyes took over as treasurer, there were reports of suspected embezzlement. Today, village leaders are wrestling with a $4,000 unpaid phone bill, the legacy of a short-lived experiment in village-council cell phones. Someone, says Mubarak, was dialing "a 900 number, and they let it go and go."
Not only that, but Mubarak is finding his job to be increasingly difficult. Though he longer is supreme leader--that job falls to Tafari--Mubarak remains largely responsible for enforcing the rules. This is no easy task, as was evident during a village meeting Sept. 5.
Some 30 people are sitting in a C-shaped array, some in sweats, some in shorts despite the evening chill. Most are white, two-thirds of them male. Above, the setting sun stains the clouds into a patchwork of dark blue, neon pink and flaming red.
Under this watercolor canopy, several people complain that no one listens to the village's vaunted 24-hour security detail. Some women complain that a male villager had been grabbing at them and had even locked one in a shower. "There's a lot of us that don't feel safe," says one.
Another said their complaints are ignored. "Nobody wants to back us up," she said.
Mubarak, standing before the villagers, says the village rules remain the same: Everybody pitches in, and drugs, booze, theft, violence and chronic bad behavior are not allowed.
"All five of these rules are broken here every day," he says, his voice rising. "All I hear is, 'This person pulled a knife.' 'This person had a party.' Well, no more. The buck stops here.... We're losing support. We're losing people who come to donate. We're trying to get a Perma-site. We're trying to do well."
If you break a rule or commit a crime, "do it somewhere else," he says, adding that if you do it inside the village, "we're going to ask you to leave."
More accurately, Mubarak will ask them to leave. As manager of tents, he decides who stays and, to a great degree, who goes, like an all-homeless episode of the reality TV show Big Brother.
Mubarak says this is the toughest part of his job. "The biggest challenge for me is having to tell someone they have to leave," he says, "because I know they are good people--they just made a mistake."
Several villagers told WW that when it comes to discipline, Mubarak plays favorites, and that his appearance as a benevolent leader is only that: an appearance.
Reyes, however, says the grousing stems from a belated crackdown on several meth-addicted troublemakers in the village. Several weeks ago, she says, she told Mubarak that "if he can't do his job, he needs to step down." Ever since, she says, he has tightened discipline.
Runkel, the city's liaison to the village, says that things have improved markedly since Dignity became an approved nonprofit in last October. The leadership has made steady progress in setting up fiscal controls and dealing with discipline, including setting up a judicial committee with the help of Oregon Law Center's Marc Jolin. Also, there is now an advisory board of professionals that serves as an informal check and balance to the village council.
"There's going to be problems in any emerging system of governance," says Runkel, "but they're dealing with the problems as they come up."
Mubarak, for his part, says the Village has a bigger problem than rule-breaking or mismanagement. He fears it is losing its idealism, thanks to an abundance of luxuries and an influx of people who've never spent a day on the streets. Rather, they came directly from apartments, thanks to an eviction notice or a desire to save rent money.
"We've got a new wave of people, and they don't know what it's like on the street," he says.
It's true that some campers appear to be there by choice. Donnie, a self-described ex-hippie who was a business owner and teacher before developing a skin condition, says he is living in Dignity even though his five kids would prefer he live with them.
His tent, a homey converted RV shelter, is powered by a row of car batteries and a solar panel. It holds a radio/tape player, two TVs and a VCR, couch, bookshelf, and a well-stocked kitchen that includes a propane stove and a cooler--with bacon, ground beef, milk and cream--that he frequently fills with ice from the village's communal freezers.
Mubarak worries that some campers have become too comfortable. "I don't tell them this," he says, "but I cancel a lot of donations because people are becoming too dependent. Too many people are sitting here waiting--they are stagnating."
Ironically, Mubarak's early salesmanship created some of these comforts. The Community Cycling Center donated two dozen mountain bikes. The city provides electricity and water service. Lee Larson, a former bus company owner, donated the Bluebird bus and another $63,000, including a year's worth of rent to the city. The scattered vegetable garden came from Portland Nursery.
Every Friday, a dozen church workers drive up crammed in a blue Chevy van to disburse bag lunches, blessings and good cheer. The donations tent is well-stocked with piles of clothes and books.
Mubarak fears that Dignity is becoming what it most despises: a disempowering social-service bureaucracy. "What the government does is rob and rape you of your will because they are always giving things to you," says Mubarak.
When Mubarak says some villagers are stagnating, he may have a point. During a recent overnight WW visit, the computers were used not for job searchers but for playing solitaire, cribbage and Vegas-style slots. Instead of documentaries, the TV showed Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Steven Seagal. Mubarak spent much of a sunny Saturday watching college football and U.S. Open tennis. Meanwhile, though a few tomatoes and other vegetables do grow in some parts of the garden, other plants are withering; a carton of donated seedlings also lies dead, as a plan to replant them has been abandoned.
"People call it laziness, but I call it not knowing what to do," says Mubarak, explaining that he and other village leaders, too busy with finding a site and other projects, need to do a better job of teaching and directing villagers to pick up the slack.
Meanwhile, the village is just barely covering expenses to pay for portable toilets and garbage service. Villagers are being asked to voluntarily contribute to pay off Dignity's unpaid phone bill, causing a villager to complain at a recent meeting that it shouldn't "just be the working people that have to contribute and carry the load of the lazy people."
To avoid such complaints, Mubarak says the new plan is to charge villagers $25 to $30 a month in return for the right to stay there. If they cannot pay, they can do chores instead.
But even this plan has problems. Mubarak says there's an attitude in the village that having a job makes one superior, emulating the class system the village founders had hoped to eliminate. "We are," he says, "becoming the people we're running from."
These issues have surfaced just as Dignity Village seems on the brink of a major success. Village leaders are negotiating with a developer over a plot of two or three acres that would be donated as a tax writeoff in exchange for the services of some village work crews.
The news has Dignity supporters excited about what the future may hold. Last week Mark Lakeman, a noted green architect, unveiled plans to construct green buildings on the permanent site out of cobb, a mixture of straw and clay.
There's a chance that a permanent site could give Mubarak and his fellow villagers the stability they need. But the idea of a permanent camp is likely to be met with skepticism by even some low-income advocates, such as Doreen Binder, executive director of Transition Projects Inc., which operates two shelters in Portland.
Binder questions the fact that Dignity has no time limit on how long campers can stay and no process to ensure that only the truly needy stay there. Told of some of the highly functioning villagers there, she says, "What is this, the new resort?"
With so few beds available at area shelters, Binder says the City Council, which exempted Dignity from Portland's camping ban, has a responsibility to make sure resources are well used. "What about the other 200 or 2,000 people out there who are mentally ill or have a host of other problems--who instead are sleeping outside, getting harassed by the Portland police?" she asks.
Erik Sten, the city commissioner who has been Dignity's biggest supporter, defends the camping ban as a tool to prevent unsafe living conditions. Though Dignity is not utopia, he says, it is better than the alternative. "I'll never know how many people didn't get raped, beat up or something worse because of Dignity Village, but I'm sure it happened," he says. "And secondly, I'm sure that some number of people got their life back together because of this. I don't think it's perfect, and I don't know if it can last. But it sure has lasted a lot longer than I thought it would."
If Dignity does go before the City Council for a permanent permit, Pollard, who helped create it, is unlikely to speak on its behalf. He fears that instead of becoming a utopia, the attempt at a homeless commune has simply concentrated the problems it was supposed to solve.
"I was naive," he says. "I mean, people who are housed and have reasonably stable lives are not able to live in a healthy communal way--so how dare we expect society's most traumatized, most abused and most injured to do it?"
Can Dignity Village avoid losing its utopian dreams?
"I know we can make it," says Mubarak. Just last week, he proposed a plan to suspend elections and freeze the village council membership as it stands now, so that the founders can keep the Village on course. "We know where we want to take it," he says. "And we know what it's going to take."
Dignity does not encourage participation in programs for alcohol- or drug addiction. "They don't work," says Mubarak. "People generally do what they want to do. If you want to stop, you do it."
Dignity has an orange cow sculpture from the Kows for Kids campaign, purchased for the village by Lee Larson at a cost of $10,000.
Dignity's latest "micro- business," an auto-detailing service started two months ago, is only drawing about one customer a week.
Many villagers are activists in homeless issues, including this week's protest at City Hall (see "Vera Hits the Road" ).
Dignity's leadership strongly discourages villagers from calling 911. This could explain why this summer's increase in misbehavior at Dignity went unnoticed by police.
's visit, a woman camping outside the village gate was banned from using the showers because she'd called 911. She claimed her ex- boyfriend, a villager, threatened to kill her dog as well as himself.
Village residents are allowed to farm a parcel of land near Hagg Lake in Washington County, which they call "Digsville." They have agreements to sell vegetables to local farmers markets.