Op-Ed: What L.A. can learn from a Portland homeless encampment


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.

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“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.

Dignity Village costs local taxpayers nothing. Residents pay all their own utility bills, including $35 a month for space rent.

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.” Although the houses aren’t fancy, many sport some style — Victorian spindles and moldings on the front porches, properly pitched roofs, decorative paint jobs, and climbing ivy growing up the exterior walls.

The atmosphere in Dignity Village is surprisingly pleasant — friendly, orderly, even civilized. The streets are quiet because nobody owns a car. The village is governed by an elected council, with Rick Proudfoot as CEO. He was thrilled when I showed up and asked for a tour.

The city contract requires the residents to provide their own security, but they would have done that anyway. “We don’t want somebody coming in here and wandering off with our stuff,” Proudfoot says. “This is the smallest little gated community in Portland.”

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. The houses have no indoor plumbing and most aren’t wired for electricity, but three have solar panels, and all are kept warm in the winter with propane heaters. Charging stations for cellphones and laptops have been placed near the community kitchen, the community shower house and the portable toilets.

Many residents have jobs, though they aren’t full-time. One guy mows lawns. Another chops and sells firewood. Proudfoot fixes computers when he isn’t busy managing the village’s day-to-day operations. “I’d like to get out of here,” he says, “but I’m trying to improve this place while I’m here. I get a little depressed every now and then, but I don’t dwell on it.”

It’s a decent place — certainly the best “homeless camp” I’ve ever seen — not only because the residents have improved it over time, but also because the rules impose just enough personal responsibility on everyone. Drug and alcohol offenses or disruptive behavior will get a person evicted, as will missing rent three months in a row or refusing to put in the required ten hours per week of community service. Proudfoot insists that, aside from their extremely low incomes, he and his neighbors aren’t so different from everyone else in the city — and I believe him. They 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.

What changed, then? They found a place to call their own; they cobbled together some structure and rules in their lives; and they worked hard to better their circumstances. Now that they have something to lose, they’re forced to be responsible. 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.

The City of Portland is looking for a way to build on this success and allow more “tiny houses.” Dignity Village proves the model can work, at least for some homeless people. Basic tiny-house structures with just 200 square feet or so can be purchased for as little as $3,000. I found a slightly smaller one on for only $1,200. A person could work part-time at Starbucks and afford one; a homeless person could conceivably panhandle enough to buy one with cash if he didn’t waste the money on drugs or booze.

Granted, Dignity Village wouldn’t work for everyone. What about the mentally ill? What about substance abusers who can’t or won’t change?

Some homeless people — like schizophrenics and other mentally ill people — are simply unable to take care of themselves. Some aren’t going to make it. Some will hit bottom and stay there. “These 10-year plans to end homelessness haven’t gotten us anywhere,” says Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman. “I’d never attach a deadline to ending it. I just don’t think it’s something we can totally eliminate unless you’re Minneapolis during the winter and people have no choice but to leave. But I don’t know where they go.”

A lot of them wash up out West — not just in Portland, but in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — where the weather is kinder. 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.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at City Journal and is the author of six books, including “Where the West Ends” and “Tower of the Sun.” This essay was adapted from City Journal’s Winter issue.

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