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Editorial: Angels Needed!
by Miriam Knight

It’s all about Community...

Miriam Knight
Dignity Village may be only a motley collection of 54 tents covering a city block of ODOT land under the Fremont Bridge, but for its 80 residents who might otherwise inhabit doorways and sidewalks it is much more. It is an island of peace and safety in a raging sea of substance abuse, crime, isolation, catch-22 joblessness, political and societal impotence and alienation that is the lot of most homeless people. More importantly, Dignity is a living example of what a group of individuals can achieve by working together for a common goal.

This is the third site for Dignity, and they are under notice to vacate by July 1st. City Commissioner Erik Sten has been sympathetic to the group, as have neighboring businesses and St. Patrick’s Church, who note in their letters of support that street litter and vandalism in the neighborhood have gone down. Ironically it was a complaint registered by a former villager evicted for breaking the ban on drugs, alcohol and violence that triggered the machinery of City Planning regulations.

There are about 600 shelter beds in Portland and about 3,000 homeless people (many prefer the term "houseless"), leaving about 2,400 to sleep outside. Given the limited options, Dignity has proved itself to be an attractive and helpful model. They see themselves as the “mothership” creating a model of hope for others in their situation. By choosing to band together, this disparate group has succeeded in creating a self-policing and mutually supportive community. With their own council they established a set of rules and a schedule of chores. The result is a clean, safe environment that has extended to their whole neighborhood; a community free of theft, drugs and alcohol, its residents able to leave their belongings to go look for work, and know that they will be there when they return.

It may not sound like much to those of us who take these things for granted, but to the members of Dignity it is life-changing. It is no wonder that they are resisting the eviction notice by all means possible.

In their June 7th editorial, the Oregonian accused Dignity’s residents of alienating some Portlanders “with their sweeping assumption that they have the right to park indefinitely on public land.” Aside from displaying a certain meanness of spirit, this remark displays a blindness, a) to the magnitude of the achievement, and b) to its real essence. It is not about claiming public land; it is about claiming their self-respect and regaining some control over their lives; it is about acknowledging that without rules, a community breaks down; it is about learning to trust again; it is about trusting enough to accept help and loving enough to give it back. For many of the Villagers, trust is the emotional equivalent of scaling the Matterhorn, and they have done it!

If Dignity Village is disbanded without being offered an alternative site, these fragile achievements risk being shattered and any trust the villagers have developed in their ability to change their lives in the face of “the system” will be destroyed. The achievements of the human spirit are to be treasured and nurtured wherever they are found; how much more so when they bloom, however tentatively, in the dark shadows of city bridges and doorways. The bonds of community created within Dignity Village will survive more moves, but they won’t survive being scattered back into the street.

Dignity Village is not a bunch of freeloaders. They have taken advantage of their brief time of stability and have built an impressive fund to buy themselves a permanent home. They have created an organic farm on donated land near Vancouver called Digsville, and hope to be able to provide their own food, and sell the rest. But they need more time.

PLEASE - an angel is truly needed here to offer a site for this community. A permanent site would be great, but even a temporary site would be a blessing. If you have some empty land, or are on the council of a church, non-profit or other corporation who would welcome the opportunity to walk their talk, call John Hubbird, the Coordinator of the Site Development Team at 503-295-7747.

Bless you.