For city's homeless, will it take a village?

Portland has allowed the indigent to form a community, but now reconsiders.

In a nation that's struggled to find answers to the problem of homelessness, a group of people in rainy Portland have taken their welfare into their own hands.

What began three years ago with a handful of stubborn squatters has grown into a full community of more than 70 homeless people trying to improve their lot.

On a recent bone-chilling night, 25 of them convene under cool fluorescent lights in a community shack to hear the minutes from last week's meeting.

"I move that we approve the minutes as read," says a long-haired man warming himself by a wood-burning stove. A woman questions whether this is the right procedure according to Robert's Rules of Order. It is, another woman assures her.

Democracy is at work in "Dignity Village," one of the nation's few government-sanctioned tent cities. On a remote patch of city-owned asphalt, residents have cobbled one-room shacks out of plywood, plastic, tarps, and other scavenged materials. If they have their way, they will create a permanent haven where people who fall on hard times can find a warm bed and a sense of community.

Several Portland officials oppose public support of Dignity Village, arguing that the use of city funds would equal an institutionalization of homelessness. They are suggesting that the city refuse to extend the community's lease, which is up for review this Saturday.

Even the community's supporters admit that a tent city is not an ideal arrangement. But without better options, like more shelters and low-income housing, it may be necessary.

The community's very existence represents the awkward position in which many US cities find themselves as they attempt to cope with their poorest residents.

"[It is an indication] of what's wrong with the alternatives we have now," says Nancy Chapman, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. "The notion of having a place of your own and having control is very important to people. In shelters they don't have that."

The community, which is designated as a non-profit corporation, is run by a governing council of 13 members. The group can expel residents if they use drugs or alcohol, or commit violence.

In a makeshift office inside a trailer residents write résumés, follow job postings, and send and receive e-mail. There are organic gardens, a library in a converted airport shuttle, and showers with propane-powered heaters. Committees provide 24-hour security, construction help, and garbage cleanup.

The 70 residents represent a cross-section of US homelessness. Some are out-of-work professionals with masters degrees. Some just recently lost their jobs, while others haven't had a permanent bed for decades. Many struggle with physical disabilities or mental illness. At least 10 are veterans.

Nationwide, homelessness has risen 14 percent the past two years. About 3.5 million people are now classified as homeless, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

In Portland, a city of half a million residents, up to 4,000 people experience homelessness on a given night, officials say. Dignity Village is consistently full, however, because the city offers only 2,200 shelter beds.

Even so, the community's future is uncertain. Zoning restrictions and neighborhood groups have repeatedly blocked residents' attempts to buy land, with the help of donations, for a permanent site.

"When Dignity first came into existence, I had on my desk 2,000 postcards from people saying 'Give it a chance,' " says Eric Runkle, aide to City Commissioner Erik Sten, one of the community's staunchest supporters. "But whenever Dignity has tried to move into a permanent site, there's a strong neighborhood backlash against having a homeless camp nearby."

The debate heated up after a local radio talk-show host complained about alleged building code violations there - claims that no one disputes. The complaints have triggered a process that requires the city to decide the community's short-term fate by Saturday.

While residents have requested that the city extend their lease for 10 years and waive their rent, critics argue that city funds should be directed toward permanent housing.

"I don't think it's a compassionate way to treat the homeless," says City Commissioner Jim Francesconi. "Putting them way out away from services, grocery stores, and employment services never made a lot of sense to me. You need more low-income housing, transition services, jobs, mental health counseling, and drug and alcohol counseling."

To that end, several cities, including Portland, are beginning to redirect the homeless and the poor into mixed-income communities. With $9.2 million in federal grants, Portland hopes to build 400 new permanent housing units over the next two years, with more units to follow during the next eight years.

"I really think we need to avoid any kinds of solutions that continue to institutionalize homelessnes," says Heather Lyons, manager of programs for the homeless at Portland's Bureau of Housing and Community Development.

But these efforts often take decades to materialize, say experts.

"The simple fact is, there isn't housing," says Eric Runkle, aide to City Commissioner Erik Sten, one of the community's staunchest supporters. "Even if ... we had the money to build enough affordable housing, it would be years before it could be built."

For most, shelters are the only alternative. But even there, visitors must clear out each morning, if they are able to find space at all. For many residents of Dignity Village, those options are not good enough. And by allowing the tent city to remain - for now - on public land, the city of Portland acknowledges the dilemma.

"Dignity Village gives people a stable place to be," says Benjamin Howard, the community's fire marshal, who has spent the past decade in several shelters.

"Dog" Dave, who's been homeless since the age of 13, says he has found opportunities to learn and a support network during his stay in the community. "I've been looking for something like this ever since I've been on the streets."

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