Dignity Village started as both a camping protest by a group of committed homeless activists, and a viable alternative to sleeping on the streets and in doorways. It emerged as a transient tent city in December of 2000 on a parcel of vacant city land underneath a downtown bridge. Over the course of a year, the tent city was swept around Portland, occupying various public spaces, and repeatedly finding themselves in high-profile standoffs with officials. Whenever notice was given to leave a campsite, early residents of “Camp Dignity” packed their belongings into shopping carts and pushed them in parades to their next location.
For a time, a space under the Fremont Bridge was known as Camp Dignity. In December 2001, Dignity Village registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit status with the IRS. When the ruling came down that they needed to vacate from that location, the considerable force of the organizers split into three groups. One moved out to a forty-acre farm outside Portland, and called it Rancho Dignity. A second group occupied a field off Naito Parkway, known as the Field Of Dreams. That camp was swept, and several members were arrested for camping on public lands. The third group moved to an industrial area in NE Portland, Sunderland Yard, where the Village still sits.
Moving to the Sunderland Yard site was indeed controversial. Some early members of Dignity Village felt it was too far outside the city, doomed to failure because residents wouldn’t be able to access necessary services.
This move was meant to be temporary until a permanent site could be identified. Instead, it has been the home of Dignity Village since its controversial beginnings. After three years surviving in its temporary status, it was sanctioned as an official tiny house Village in 2004 by the Portland City Council. To do this, the City Council designated a portion of Sunderland Yard as a Designated Campground under the terms of ORS 446.265. This State statute allows 6 municipalities to designate up to two sites as campgrounds to be used for “transitional housing accommodations” for “persons who lack permanent shelter and cannot be placed in other low income housing.” The statute notes that these transitional campgrounds may be operated by private persons or nonprofit organizations.