Dignity Village & Tent City: Using our money compassionately and wisely



One of the many houses in Dignity Village

As our City of Seattle trip to Portland came to an end last week, I joined my colleagues Tom Rasmussen and Nick Licata on a visit to Dignity Village. The village is a city-recognized encampment of 60 people, and it’s located in the Sunderland neighborhood of Northeast Portland, about 7 miles out of downtown. I’ve heard a great deal about Dignity Village over the years, and I wanted to see it for myself.

One of the first things I learned is that in contrast to common perception, the Village is not covered with tents. Rather, it is composed of small structures roughly 10’x20’, many of which are brightly painted and insulated. After spending an hour walking around the village with residents Scott and Lisa and meeting many of the people who live there, I would say that insulation is very important. Dignity Village is near the Portland Airport, not far from the Columbia River, and the wind blows cold there.

Scott, Nick, me, and Lisa

Dignity Village is entirely self-governed — this is what makes the residents most proud. The Village has a leadership committee that chooses who lives here, and no one under 18 is allowed.  No one who drinks alcohol or uses drugs inside the Village is allowed to stay, and neither violence nor theft is tolerated. In fact, they have a “One Strike and You’re Out” policy which is strictly enforced. Anyone who abuses the rules is out — no exceptions.

Dignity Village residents say the most important feature is that they provide each other with peer support. For example, many have overcome their addictions and they help others who are struggling. They also help each other find work and information about outside resources and programs. Lisa and Scott, who recently married, came into the Village with the expectation of staying only a short while. But they found they could give back by staying and becoming part of the leadership committee. Both explained that this role has restored their confidence and has made them feel like contributing members of this society.

A multitude of birdhouses, which are sold by residents to help fund village operations

Interestingly, Dignity Village does not receive much from the City of Portland.  The City gave them the land many years ago, but those living in Dignity Village manage to cover most of their operating expenses from private donations; they also sell Village-generated goods, such as bird houses, beaded jewelry and fresh vegetables.  Most of the Villagers do not want the City of Portland to impose either reporting requirements or administrative help. Everyone I spoke to insisted that their self-autonomy was critical to their self-managed community.  “We are helping ourselves, not relying on hand outs,” said Scott.

Everyone who lives there contributes toward expenses and through service to the community, either as security watch, clean up, or kitchen duty. They are proud that they have good relationships with their neighbors and the local fire marshal.

As the City of Seattle is considering creating a two year version of a Tent City, I recommend that we carefully consider the following:

1. Self-governance is important. Having the City of Seattle intervene with administrative requirements and case management has its benefits and its costs.  Dignity Villagers would say that the costs are too high because they no longer are solving their own problems.

2. Tents can be much improved.  There are no tents in Dignity Village. They have built their own shelters by themselves and with the assistance of church groups and college students. Materials have been donated and the roofs are solid.

3. Running water and hot showers are needed. Dignity Village relies on port-a-johns but has built a small building with hot water for showers.   Sanitation is critical.

4. Community Space is Critical.  Dignity Villagers meet frequently to discuss rules and procedures. They have a warm place to meet with a common kitchen and TV area. This is important to their ability to meet and support each other.

5. Places for Couples and Pets are important. One of the missing pieces for addressing emergency and temporary homelessness is a place where couples can stay together, or individuals with pets can stay in peace. Dignity Village welcomes both. Few places in Seattle address these needs.

Village resident Scott with Tom Rasmussen

6. Case management and shelter is already offered by many existing non-profits and the faith community.  Many non-profits provide shelter and services now. Rather than duplicating what is already offered, I would coordinate thoroughly with those entities that are doing it well.

7. The number of Tent Cities allowed within the City of Seattle are limited by agreement.   Many churches and synagogues provide shelter and food to those who need it now.  It is their constitutional right to do so and I believe the City of Seattle should not restrict those churches that choose to offer food and shelter to those who are homeless.  I would like to open a conversation with the faith-based community to see if others would offer emergency shelter to a number of homeless individuals and couples on church property.  We could also discuss the possibility of the City offering limited supplementary payments for rental of parking lot space for vans, trailers, or modules, and/or payments to subsidize utility costs incurred by the host.  

8.  How about investing in dormitory style housing?   We have seen some successful low income housing options in our city where those in need of housing are provided a small individual room, sometimes with a toilet and sink, and other times with common-use toilets and showers like college doms.  Some in the private sector are successfully providing this community-style housing now at affordable rates.  The rooms are clean and livable for around $500 per month.  

The mayor is proposing the City pay to operate a tent city for up to 100 people who need temporary housing.   I am thinking out loud here, but rather than putting $202,000 operating costs into tents, plus $500,000+ into capital construction, wouldn’t we be smarter to invest the $700,000 in smart looking dormitory style housing throughout the city where people who need shelter have some privacy and warmth?

It’s  my belief that we need to combine permanent housing with appropriate support services as a better use of our resources. Transitional housing like Dignity Village is temporary for some but permanent for others.  I understand that some people like to be outside in tents, because that is their only affordable option.  Maybe we can find a space where those who want to be in a community in tents can safely be together as they can be at Dignity Village.  But for my money, I would rather invest in those who are already providing food and shelter to homeless people, and to use our public money to build or retrofit some permanent housing where those who need it can be housed in a clean and warm space.   

As a City, I believe we have the right to decide what fits best in our community.    We want to provide those who need temporary housing with what they need to become healthy and to move on to permanent housing.  I think we can do better than tents.  Right now I have more questions than answers; but what I know is that no matter which path we take, Dignity must be part of the equation. 

I welcome your thoughts on this.

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