Stuck In Dignity: Stories from Residents in Portland’s Legal Shantytown
Below the Columbia River’s currents, far removed from the bustling streets of Oregon’s metropolitan Portland, is another world: a fenced-in, one-acre lot of asphalt that as the country’s only legal shantytown houses a unique expression of marginalized homeless culture.
Dignity Village overwhelms with color, life, creativity, and chaos. Ramshackle structures built from scrap and personalized with painted exteriors of vistas and wildlife fill the cloistered grounds, flush with garden beds and potted plants, and strewn with knickknacks, building supplies, and junk. Cats roam in search of food and affection as their human compatriots bustle between their shanties to a well-worn, fly-infested common area to prepare meals and socialize.
More than just an open-air homeless shelter, Dignity Village is its own self-contained neighborhood, a tiny ragtag settlement where 56 of Portland’s homeless have established their lives. Some are here by circumstance, the product of seemingly endless years of unemployment, bouts of incarceration, or flights from abusive relationships. Within the relative safety of Dignity Village, residents find respite from the harsh, isolating conditions of life on the streets, leading some to question whether or not they are, indeed, homeless.
“To me, this isn’t a shantytown. This is home,” explains Scott Layman, squinting through wire-frame tea-shades and pausing for a long drag from his cigarette. Forty-eight-year-old Layman and his partner, Lisa Larson, have lived in the Village ever since they were jailed for squatting in an empty house in southern Portland almost two years ago. Unable to find a job and provide for his partner, Layman says he became riddled with self-doubt, losing all faith in himself. Yet, today he moves about the Village with a commanding swagger. “Here I am more confident. I’ve found my voice.”
Like many residents, Layman has fought with substance abuse and chronic mental health conditions for most of his life, and in turn has struggled to find meaningful employment. Such underlying problems are emblematic of the struggle for dignity in the Village, a struggle that residents share, imbuing them with such a strong sense of community that many here actually thrive.
David Samson, an eloquent, bearded 49-year-old in the midst of going deaf from calcified eardrums, is an active member of the community. Graced with a strong presence and kind eyes, he works as the Village’s security coordinator, just one of several leadership positions Samson has held while living in Dignity Village.
Leaning forward in his lawn chair, he recounts the first time he decided to call this asphalt lot home. Five years ago, Samson found himself suddenly abandoned by his wife and three children, who had left for southern Oregon. It was then, Samson says, that his life fell apart.
“Once I lost my wife and family I felt hopeless,” he says, describing his ensuing battle with alcoholism and depression. Unable to afford housing, Samson moved to Dignity Village in 2006. He managed to leave a year later once he found seasonal employment as a cook in northern California. But his job quickly proved to be an insufficient source of income.
Thoughtfully combing his fingers through his beard, Samson speaks of his decision to return a second time: “If I was going to be homeless, potentially, I wanted to be homeless somewhere where I knew how things worked and where I had friends.”
Ten years ago, this refuge was nothing more than a tent city of illegal squatters in downtown Portland, constantly migrating from one bridge to another to avoid criminalization for use of unlicensed land. Desperate to appease vocal homeless advocates, the Portland City Council agreed to give the squatters a vacant lot, wedged between a correctional facility and a composting ground.
Today, Dignity Village is an officially recognized, transitional housing settlement, the result of a series of contested mediations between the City of Portland, activists, and the residents themselves. Currently, the Village is on the verge of renegotiating its contract with the City, raising questions among both officials and residents about whether the settlement actually fulfills its purpose of rehabilitating Portland’s homeless.
Many believe it does. Heralded by community activists and politicians as a success story among shantytowns, Dignity Village is a phenomenon of surprising functionality. Unlike your average tent city, the Village has its own, albeit primitive, sanitary facilities. It boasts a greenhouse, a tool shed, even wireless Internet access.
A groundbreaking example of alternative living, Dignity Village is regularly toured by those from as far away as Yugoslavia and Japan looking to explore how they might better implement a comparable system to support their own homeless populations.
“I’ve heard a great deal about Dignity Village over the years, and I wanted to see it for myself,” wrote Seattle councilor Sally Bagshaw in a reflective essay after her visit to the Village. As Seattle currently debates the creation of a tent city, she recommends, “No matter which path we take, Dignity must be part of the equation.”
It’s no wonder. Dignity Village is a safe haven for the disenfranchised, where everyone is expected to be accountable, respectful, and substance-free, as reflected in the five basic rules of the community: No violence to yourself or others. No theft. No alcohol or illegal drugs. No disruptive behavior. And everyone must contribute to the operation and maintenance of the Village.
Most unique to this shantytown is its self-governing structure. Residents meet biweekly in committee and membership meetings to vote on a variety of matters from which new members to take in to what new equipment to purchase—anything that affects the community as a whole. Through this process of political participation, residents develop a sense of responsibility to their community.
In this social economy residents exchange labor for rent, taking on specific roles and duties that range from treasurer to community outreach to technical operator. Some grow produce—tomatoes, zucchini, parsley, strawberries—for consumption, and starter plants to sell for community revenue. Others keep the grounds tidy, sweeping the asphalt and mopping the common room. Resident Mitch Grubic, a striking, talented artisan from California, crafts furnishings and refurbishes donated trinkets to sell for community profit. It’s just one way people with fractured identities come to know themselves again and, in some cases, find the inner strength to move on.
A petite woman of 52, Rachael McIntosh, dubbed “Rocky,” lived in the Village for a year after being kicked to the street by her longtime partner. Rocky’s weathered face tells a story: her whole life she was on the move. Beaten and molested by her father regularly until the age of 14, she fled to aimlessly hitchhike across the country for three decades, drinking heavily and using a variety of psychedelic drugs.
After living in the Village for a year, Rocky now shares an apartment in Vancouver, Washington, with her black Giant Schnauzer, Sadie. She says she’s quit drinking and using hard drugs. And she’s happier, attributing her better life to the Village. “If it wasn’t for this place, I might have ended up killing myself,” Rocky says. “Now life is okay, and it could be a whole lot worse.”
Yet, while Dignity Village is classified by city officials as a transitional encampment meant for launching Portland’s destitute back into mainstream society, few of its residents manage to fulfill this mission. Layman and his partner intended to live here for just six months, but instead became invested in the operation of the Village rather than in rejoining the outside world.
“When we first got here, we were in the mindset that all we needed to do was get a job and find a place,” Layman explains. “I’ll admit, I’ve become lackadaisical in finding a job, but I also have 20 to 30 hours of volunteer time to give to the Village.”
Such is the paradigm here. Many residents, like Layman, get so caught up in Village culture that shanty living becomes a lifestyle option, rather than a means to long-term change—a manifestation of homelessness, rather than a solution.
Although Rocky has been out of Dignity Village for six years now, she returns almost every day to spend her time with the other residents. To her, these are close friends. Rocky feels neither comfortable nor accepted joining the normalized world of image, materialism, and routine. And surviving on disability checks and veterans benefits from the government, she has little incentive to.
“I’m comfortable here. I don’t have to be somebody else,” she says. “Other people look at you different. Here, they don’t.” Indeed, Rocky is a startling sight to the outside world. Her clothes are baggy and soiled. Like many people in Dignity Village, she is missing teeth and speaks in a raspy, coarse tone, likely from decades of cigarette smoking. Only in Dignity Village does she feel like she belongs. “There are ways you have to behave to be socially accepted. But here, I can come and be me.”
Undoubtedly, the Village’s ability to self-regulate is an enormous source of pride for residents here. After all, this is the country’s only legally recognized, incorporated shantytown. There are bylaws, rules, and a clear mission: to provide for and empower its residents through education and support services to seek employment and permanent housing. However, many of the goals originally put forth are, today, little more than broken promises with many rules going unenforced.
“There are a number of things the Village is supposed to be doing: education, outreach…” explains Samson, trailing off as he fiddles with his hearing aid. “But now, the Village just got locked into survival mode, like paying the bills and not being able to do the more extensive things it was designed to do.”
During its transformation from tent city to Dignity Village, the community garnered a wide array of media attention and public support. Donations of food and building supplies were brought in regularly, and non-profit groups helped construct the wooden shanties that stand today. But years later, media coverage has dwindled, and donations have dropped off dramatically. Today, Dignity Village struggles to make ends meet, leading some to doubt the long-term survival of the supposedly self-sustaining community.
This sense of dependency crosses over into other aspects of Village life. Many residents have a long history of drug and alcohol addiction and move into the Village under the pretense of a zero-tolerance policy. But despite the Village’s self-promotion as an environment free of drugs and alcohol, much of it appears to be a façade. While the sense of accountability and purpose that comes with Village life likely reduces substance abuse among residents, behind makeshift doors, there is no meaningful way to enforce this policy.
Even Village leaders such as Larson, partner to Layman and acting treasurer of Dignity Village, admit to still using on occasion, but “it’s not a way of functioning anymore,” she says. “In the position I’m at, if I was to be twacked out of my gourd, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”
To adequately function while under the influence is symbolic of the yawning gap between the idea of Dignity Village and its reality. Here, the homeless find sanctuary in a transitional housing settlement from which few ever manage to successfully transition. Residents consistently devote many hours to the ground’s upkeep, but most fail to seek out stable, full-time employment. And while the Village is publicly lauded for its ability to rehabilitate, only a small percentage of its residents will ever find permanent housing.
Yet, much like the Village itself, the residents are a work in progress. Fleeing the trauma of the past, they enter seeking shelter and inevitably become part of a community, ingrained with an unprecedented sense of accountability and fellowship. Here, the economically depressed are given a step toward the pursuit of a better life. It’s far from perfect. But Dignity Village, in all of its flaws, is still a safer, happier home than the streets.