Dignity Village

The past week, approximately a dozen SFU Urban Studies students took the train down to Portland, Oregon. Included in our itinerary was an in-person visit to Dignity Village, an encampment recognized by the City of Portland. The site is located in North Portland and is bound by a compost facility, the airport and a jail. The site can accommodate up to 60 residents.

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Google View of Dignity Village

About Dignity Village

Dignity Village operates under a governance structure similar to ones used in co-ops (bylaws, Board members and various committees). The Village has strict rules regarding alcohol, drugs, children and violence. Residents build their own homes from scrap material.  The wait list can run from 6-20 residents depending on the season. People who submit their names to the wait list must check in every week to confirm their spot. The site is monitored 24 hours by security. Many if not all residents qualify for and use food stamps. The site has sustainable features such as a rainwater catchment bin and numerous gardens.

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Because the site is located on city land, residents have to meet with staff and Council every few years to renew their contract. The site is serviced by one bus (route 73) which runs every half hour between the hours of 6:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. on weekdays. There is electricity and it is paid for by residents. Electricity powers a television, miscellaneous items such as a coffee maker and items specific to residents with health concerns. Although a volunteer therapist makes regular visits, the CEO felt that an addictions counselor and job training were equally important.

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Raised garden. This plot had tomatoes.

Thoughts About Dignity Village

I had a really difficult time trying to pick a side. And perhaps this was an error on my part because I have concluded that the answer is not black and white. Dignity Village brings up some really interesting thoughts and part of this is because I have no point of reference. What I will do is consider the strengths and weaknesses of Dignity Village. On the one hand, residents are empowered. The self-governing organization of the village builds their self-esteem and confidence. They are learning to be self-sufficient in a safe environment and they are surrounded by a supportive community who understand homelessness.

However, the site’s distance from the city centre makes the commute to services and facilities difficult as it requires payment (bus fare) and time (half hour from start to end of the line). The distance may present a barrier to residents trying to find and/or retain a job, the proximity of the site to the compost facility is a concern for those with health complications and even though the residents are living on city land the reality of living on city lands means residents have to conform to the city’s requests. So yes they are empowered but they are also privy to the City’s requests.

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A colleague made an interesting observation: To some, dignity is more important than the modern conveniences I have grown accustomed to. His observation made me reflect on my personal values and opinions, and to what extent are they influencing my stance on Dignity Village. Are my values narrowing my focus and preventing me from seeing the bigger picture? Although I agree with my colleague, I also think we can do better. The site is located so far away that you can’t help but understand the message being sent by Mayor and Council. The nearest walk-in clinic is located 2.8 miles away (a 53 minute walk or 50 minute bus ride that involves three busses) and the nearest food bank is a 16-minute walk away (Google does not identify any viable transit routes).

What are your thoughts about Dignity Village? Have you visited Dignity Village? And if yes, what are your thoughts about it?

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Filing out of the commons and checking out the cat

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4 responses to “Dignity Village

    • We were led on a half hour tour by the CEO and he was quite candid with his thoughts and opinions. Some of the students had a chance to speak with another resident but otherwise, our discussion was limited to the CEO. I am not sure if this was by choice or due to a lack time (our visit was limited in terms of time given the number of presentations scheduled that day). I agree, we could have benefited from other perspectives.

      I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic with your comment about the 16-minute walk. I should note that the walk is not on sidewalks but along a road strip on what appears to be a rural road (according to Streetview)

      • It definitely wasn’t a sarcastic comment! I walk longer than 16 minutes just to get to my bus stop, though doing it on a sidewalk-less rural road is certainly a little less favourable (however I do see bike markings on NE 33rd – pop on a basket and you’re good to go!)

        The reason I ask about conversations with residents is because I’m sure they would have opinions about the location, access to amenities, etc. that could be helpful to build the clearest possible picture of the village. No doubt the CEO would have had interesting things to say, but from a markedly different vantage point. But then again I don’t know the reasons for visiting the site 🙂

        Looking forward to more posts from the PDX trip!

  1. I agree that the distance is an issue, however the trade off is greater self reliance. Squatter’s settlements which were once common across North America and existed prior to mortgages and suburbs were all at the urban fringe. In fact many of the world’s squatter’s settlements are at the urban fringe. This just happens to be the nature of the beast. Urban land is expensive and when it isn’t, it often becomes so and squats are torn down if they are unable to raise the capital needed or change the minds of government. The urban fringe is far more ideal for those who already live on the social fringe and provides them with both some of the comforts of city life while also allowing them the freedoms inherent in life outside the city. It’s a great place to practice self sustaining practices that would not otherwise be accepted in today’s cities and might even offer some valuable lessons. If you haven’t already, watch Garbage Warrior, another interesting take on existence outside the current norm while offering some progressive ideas about architecture.

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