- How was Dignity Village started? What were early barriers?
In 2000, unhoused people envisioned and created the first Village Model shelter and named it Dignity Village. Dignity Village began as a direct action social justice movement, loosely inspired from the Homeless Unions of the 70s/80s, British squat communes, the Global Justice movement, and the Civil Rights movement. They worked with activists to learn media and organizing skills to run their own campaign. This enabled them to build their own skills, autonomy, and to attract support from skilled community partners such as architects, lawyers, policy wonks, builders, etc. They started campaigning by raising awareness of issues and bad policies facing unhoused people by using demonstrations (“shopping cart parades”), press conferences, civil disobedience/direct action (illegally camping on public property as a group), and protests at/in City Hall. They fought for and formalized the original Village model: democratically administrated, governed, and operated, low barrier shelter community into a 501c3 nonprofit collective. This enabled them to maintain autonomous control and receive donations without having to be overseen by a social service agency.
The primary hurdles were identifying an existing law to support the model and battling prevalent stereotypes portraying unhoused people as incompetent, tired, unruly, criminal, violent, etc. They used a law on the books from the Great Depression era which granted the City permission to set up shanty towns. Dignity Village led community outreach efforts and press conferences to positively counter the stereotypes and won over broad popular support for the Village Model. Eventually, the popular support overwhelmed political opposition, and the City granted them a contract for the use of the Sunderland Yard site near the PDX landing strip.
Continued popular support and community partnerships have inoculated the Village against erosion of the original autonomous model. Dignity Village works with social service agencies in a partnership, where JOIN facilitates access to services and provides support without having any power over the Village. Disputes and program noncompliance are still resolved via fair collective process by the Council and Membership vote.
- How does one get into Dignity Village? What is the criteria?
The policy is that you must be currently unhoused, 18 years of age, fully vaccinated against COVID (& able show proof for entry at the gate), and appear in person to get on the wait list. Potential Villagers fill out the initial intake questionnaire and ask any questions about the Village. To maintain your place in line, you must call in once a week, which is recorded on a sheet in the guard shack. Also, a certain amount of volunteer work for the Village is required as an introductory “get to know you.”
The Village Intake Committee (VIC) is comprised of 4-5 Villagers, including a facilitator of proceedings, and one person in charge of keeping records. The function of VIC is mainly two things: to initially meet with and explain the expectations of the Village, and then to serve as point people for any new residents during an initial probationary period.
- What size should village houses be? What characteristics should they have?
No smaller than 10’x12′. What is the smallest size apartment you could imagine yourself living in with your bed, desk, clothes, kitchen wares, hygiene supplies, sentimental items, your intimate partner, and your pets? Our smallest house is 9’x’11 and is referred to as “the Dog House” because it is the size of a dog pound kennel. Everyone tries to move out of that house as soon as another house opens. Our most desirable house is a 2-story 240sf house with an upstairs bedroom and walk-in closet, a downstairs living area, and covered front porch.
The houses should have character, windows, insulation, lockable doors, and be properly vented for humidity. Villagers should be able to paint, decorate, and remodel the house to their tastes. It should feel and look like their home. The layout of the houses should encourage social connection and the visual feeling of spaciousness, rather than be laid out in a grid (grid’s promote aggression and isolation).
- What is the average time for a person to transition into housing? How many exit into housing?
This figure is highly dependant on availability of affordable housing opportunities and level of engagement from housing workers. Many villagers are on waiting lists for housing that are several years long. Some are also in the process of applying for disability benefits (which takes about 5 years) and some are elderly. Folks on fixed incomes have a much more difficult time finding appropriate affordable housing. The median length of stay is 2 years. This is part of a downward trend for the Village as more affordable housing opportunities have been created. It started at 2 years in the beginning and got as high as 10 years, when the 50,000 household affordable housing shortage (for Metro area) hit hardest. 80% of Villagers exit into housing.
- What does employment & income look like in the Village?
It’s complicated. Some folks are retired. Some are on or seeking disability benefits. Most who are not on fixed incomes are employed. However, many jobs do not pay enough to afford market rate housing, and there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in the Metro area. Villagers need assistance with getting into living wage jobs ($26/hr or higher) to be able to get into market rate housing.
Some people are close to retirement age and struggle to find stable employment due to ageism and/or appearance (missing teeth, incontinence, etc.). In these cases, they often do odd jobs such as mowing lawns, recycling cans, donating plasma, fixing cars, bike repairs, etc.
Although some Villagers may qualify for welfare benefits, they often avoid cash benefits because the effort/time required is not worth the inadequate amount awarded and the social stigma associated with it. SNAP benefit is commonly accessed in Dignity. But it is never enough to get through a month. If this was the only way to eat in the Village, they would starve to death before the next month.
- What amenities does Dignity Village offer?
Dignity Village has a shower, open-air kitchen sink with running water, 4 portable toilets, 2 offices, greenhouse, garden beds, winter shelter for guests, outdoor common spaces, security shack at the gate, computer lab, donations center, several production areas for operating small businesses, the Commons room (large hall for meetings, meals, movies/tv, social functions, and indoor cooking area), garbage/recycling service, mail service, a shared phone, and wifi. Each resident has a small private structure, each with a unique story and style, made from recycled/reused materials. They have gas heat and some have solar electricity. The Village is looking for funding to finish converting the system to solar power and bring electricity to all of the houses.
- How much did Dignity Village cost to start?
Starting costs are difficult to estimate in any useful way. As a former protest movement, they used their grassroots organizing strengths to make it all happen. Almost all materials were reclaimed from construction scraps, donated materials, and relationships with nonprofit recyclers like Rebuilding Center and various community orgs like City Repair Project and religious groups. Villagers were required, if able, to help build their own structures and find free materials. As a result, many of the homes in the Village reflect the creativity, hopes, and aspirations of their original builders.
For the land, Villagers deployed a well rounded grass roots campaign until the City relented and agreed to offer use of City property.
- How much does Dignity Village cost to operate?
About $45,000 annually. Costs include, garbage/recycling, wifi/cable/phone, water, electricity, portable toilet servicing, office supplies, misc occasional expenses, and liability insurance.
- How much government funding does Dignity Village receive?
It’s complicated. Dignity Village does not receive government funds. It does receive free access to land in exchange for providing shelter to unhoused people. The County funds one full time position (Village Program Specialist) at about $24/hr, through JOIN, to support the Village model, assist Villagers with contracts/nonprofit administration, advocacy, and connecting the Village with relevant resources/service providers.
- How is Dignity Village funded?
Dignity Village funds itself. Utilities and insurance are paid by all villagers via a monthly dues fee. All other funding comes from private donations from individuals and organizations, grants, and from the Village’s collectively run small businesses.
- How is the location?
Dignity is located in an industrial area at the end of the PDX landing strip about 45min from downtown. The upside is this location prevents harassment from house-owners, violent anti-homeless vigilante groups, or property developers, making it easy to maintain a positive position with electeds. The downsides are the bus service is poor (only every 15-30 min and only during mainstream commuter hours: 8am-8pm). Driving distance brings up the cost for people working jobs outside of traditional work hours. People on fixed incomes have to make difficult choices about how they spend their bus fare and which necessities to sacrifice. Community outreach/visibility is more difficult, which reduces Village fundraising ability.
Another element is the environmental issues. Being down by the river, in a deep gorge, we get severe, destructive winds and temperatures 10 degrees colder than anywhere else in the city. Being in an industrial area near the airport, next door to a composting facility, there is a risk of poor air quality and extreme noise exposure from military jets.
- What about safety?
Dignity Village is one of the safest places to live. As a tight knit community that holds each other accountable via membership meetings, everyone looks after one another. Emergencies of any kind are responded to immediately. Dignity Village boasts one of the lowest crime rates of any neighborhood in our city.
Fire has been a hot political issue in the news. However, the Village is very considerate of this concern. Fire inspections are conducted regularly. Dignity Village trains everyone on fire safety and how to use an extinguisher. The Village is designed to exceed fire code expectations. Fire extinguishers are placed on every other house, clearly visible from the fire lanes. We have only had a couple incidents. One was a faulty heater part. The other was a cooking fire. Both fires were put out immediately, long before fire crews arrived.
- How do people with disabilities fair in Dignity Village?
While a homeless shelter of any type is not ideal for people with disabilities, Dignity attempts to accommodate needs to the best of their ability and as needs are identified. Common spaces and hygiene facilities have mobility device ramps and ramps are often built for the homes. This can sometimes take time as the skilled labor and materials may not always be immediately available.
For mental disabilities, the Village Model might not be the best idea for a community which is exclusively for folks experiencing mental disabilities. However, folks with mental disabilities can do well in Dignity Village. The Village makes reasonable accommodations (often far beyond what a typical shelter would) for people experiencing mental disabilities and provides natural community and interpersonal supports for them. That said, people with violent or trust-violating behavioral support needs are not an ideal fit for the Village Model.
- What are the rules and enforcement process?
The basic rules are: no violence toward yourself or others; no public use of intoxicating substances allowed, except cannabis in designated area behind the Commons Bldg. responsible use of substances allowed inside personal structures. no inappropriate behavior in public spaces due to substance use. no pushing or sales allowed onsite; no stealing; everyone contributes to the upkeep and welfare of the village and works to become a productive member of the community; no disruptive behavior of any kind that disturbs the general peace and welfare of the village. However, there are other rules voted on at the membership meetings. Dignity Village keeps a manual of all the rules for villagers.
The Village enforces their own rules via an Incident Report process. If something happens, folks will write Incident Reports and submit them to the Security Coordinator. These can be small (one person will write one against someone who, for example, is making a lot of noise in the middle of the night for “constant disruptive behavior”) or large (i.e. a big argument happened in the middle of the day, with lots of witnesses). For large incidents, multiple IRs are written, and anyone who witnessed the incident is welcome to submit their account.
The Security Coordinator takes the IRs and attempts conflict resolution. Sometimes, a person will withdraw their IR at this point. The Security Coordinator also enforces any immediate consequences (for example, if there was physical violence, often times that requires an immediate 24hr out.)
The next step is bringing an IR to a council meeting. The Security Coordinator functions as a prosecutor; the Council functions as judge & jury. Anyone is entitled to defend themselves, or ask for supporting witnesses. The IRs are read aloud, then all parties make their cases, then there’s some open discussion to form proposals for solutions, and then the Council votes on the proposals. Council decisions can be overturned by a vote of the membership.
- Does Dignity Village accept donations?
Yes! Dignity Village is a 501c3 nonprofit, meaning donations are tax deductible. Please see our wish list https://dignityvillage.org/support/wish-list/
Please call ahead 503 281-1604 to ask for the Donations Coordinator and make sure the items will be accepted. Then check in at the Security Shack when you arrive. Please allow extra time, as the Donations Coordinator may not be immediately available.
- Does Dignity Village need volunteers?
Yes! Please call ahead and ask for the current Chairperson 503 281-1604. We have groups and individuals volunteer regularly. Skilled labor is especially appreciated. Skilled labor the Village frequently needs: trauma-focused therapists, builders (of all trades), fundraising, CPR training. Please be aware that proof of full vaccination against COVID is required for entry.
- Does Dignity Village offer public tours?
Yes! You can call ahead to schedule with Lisa Larson 503 281-1604 or drop on by to request an impromptu tour. Tours are generally about an hour, 2 hours if you request a viewing of the Dignity Village history video. If dropping by, please allow time for Villagers to find an available trained guide. Please be aware that proof of full vaccination against COVID is required for entry. Virtual video phone tours are available, if scheduled in advance.