OPED: Tiny homes to call their own

York Dispatch
Dignity Village

My hometown, Portland, Ore., has a serious homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges — more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia rivers — and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps and shopping carts. It's impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways.

Some activists believe there's an easy solution: All the city needs to do is fund social services generously enough to treat the root causes — such as addiction and mental illness, get the homeless some job training and move them into affordable housing.

But what if a significant portion of Portland's homeless people won't accept that kind of assistance? One local charity, Union Gospel Mission, offers a program that includes addiction treatment, counseling, work therapy and free room and board for up to two years, but it recently had 10 spaces available that nobody wanted.

"They don't want to stop using drugs," explains Doug, a formerly homeless young man in the program who will be soon starting college and majoring in psychology. "It's hard for some of them to deal with other people and structure."

"What they want is to live the way they've been living, only inside and for free," says David Willis, the program's homeless services director. "Most of them don't want to change."

If this argument is right, then Portland should strive to mitigate, rather than eradicate its homelessness problem; and it may have inadvertently hit upon an ingenious way to do just that.

Back in 2000, a group of homeless people, tired of getting rousted from doorways downtown, pushed their shopping carts together under a bridge, pitched some tents and called the place home. The city chased them from that spot, so they moved to another bridge and got tossed out again. Realizing that these people weren't going away, the city finally relented and allowed them to pitch their tents on a city-owned lot near a drainage canal — across from the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a state-run prison, and on the other side of the fence from Portland International Airport.

From Portland officials' point of view, the location was perfect. They wouldn't hear complaints from the neighbors because there weren't any neighbors. The homeless campers dubbed their site Dignity Village, with the motto, "Out of the Doorways."

When I drove out to visit, I expected Dignity Village to look like a cross between a refugee camp and a slum — but it doesn't. After the residents found themselves with a permanent location, they upgraded their accommodations by scrounging together as much money as they could — from donations and panhandling to odd jobs and recycling bottles and cans — to purchase cast-off and recycled materials for the construction of what Portlanders call "tiny houses."

The atmosphere in Dignity Village is surprisingly pleasant — friendly, orderly, even civilized. The streets are quiet because nobody owns a car. Dignity Village costs local taxpayers nothing. Residents pay all their own utility bills, including $35 a month for space rent. They pitch in to pay for community water, electricity, garbage collection and a shared wireless Internet account. Many residents have jobs, though they aren't full-time. One guy mows lawns. Another chops and sells firewood.

Residents pay their own bills. They work. They take care of each other. They're drastically at odds with the stereotypical homeless person — yet many of them were stereotypical homeless people, sleeping under bridges, pushing around shopping carts, and all the rest of it. It wouldn't have happened without the city's blessing and help, but it's not a big-government program — it's not any kind of program.

Granted, Dignity Village wouldn't work for everyone. What about the mentally ill? What about substance abusers who can't or won't change? Cities should of course do everything they can to help people get off the streets and into traditional housing, but, in the meantime, Dignity Village is a great deal better than nothing.

The people living there used to sleep in doorways and under bridges; they don't anymore.