In 2001, a group of homeless people In Portland, Oregon, set up a campsite under a downtown bridge. The city didn't have enough shelter space to accommodate its homeless population, and as the camp attracted more and more people, authorities began regular sweeps, clearing away tents and sleeping bags — which inevitably cropped right back up. Then something less predictable happened. A group of community leaders and activists teamed up with those living at the camp and hatched a plan: make the tent village permanent by developing a community of tiny homes for homeless people.
Mark Lakeman, principal at the Portland architecture firm Communitecture and an activist who volunteered design services for the project, says the organizers hoped this new community would be a prototype not only for addressing homelessness, but also for addressing Americans' propensity for bigger and bigger homes. According to the U.S. census, between 1950 and 2012 the size of the typical single family home ballooned from 983 square feet to 2,500. The environmental implications of this phenomenon are not hard to grasp, and the trend toward more personal space has made Americans increasingly isolated from one another. The organizers of what came to be called Dignity Village argued that their project could create a model for reducing humans' environmental impact while simultaneously fostering a sense of community.
Wearing kneepads and covered in sawdust while taking a break from a home renovation in Southeast Portland, Lakeman recalls that at first, the reaction from the Portland City Council was dismissive. "That's crazy," the organizers were told. But it wasn't crazy!" says Lakeman, asserting that the reason homeless people can't succeed is "because they don't live in place-based communities."
Raised eyebrows notwithstanding, the city gave the organizers a plot of land in an industrial area of Portland. Beyond that, the organizers were responsible for all of the village's expenses, covered through resident dues, private donations and resident-run businesses, which in the past have included a hot dog cart and firewood operation. Today, Dignity Village provides shelter to about 65 individuals and operates as a self-governing community for formerly homeless people. There is no outside board overseeing operations. There is no government funding. Dignity Village is run by the people of Dignity Village.
A giant, colorful mural spans the ground in the middle of the village, while benches and little gardens are scattered throughout. At the village's council meeting one evening in the fall of 2016, the topic of conversation turns to JD and Ruthie's place in the village. Well, their former place. The couple recently moved out of Dignity Village to an apartment, but their extreme hoarding and the property damage they generated, including stashing urine-filled bottles, has rendered their unit potentially uninhabitable for future residents.
A tiny home at Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. The village has been evolving and expanding, adding more homes, since it was founded in 2001. | (Courtesy Narratively)
Rick, who, like many of the subjects interviewed for this story, requested that his last name not be used, makes a proposal to allot some of the village's surplus funds this month toward bleach — to get the urine smell out. The council unanimously agrees to provide five dollars to cover five bottles of bleach from Dollar Tree. Somebody utters the word "cesspool." Another says he went in there and "the floor is mushy." Tumbleweed, who sits in a wheelchair with long gray hair in a braid down his back, and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, beseeches the Golden Rule of homeless living: "You pack it in, you pack it out," he says. "Nobody should leave a place like that."
From the back of the community room, Lisa, who sits with her legs casually dangling off the kitchen counter, brings up what's to be done about JD and Ruthie themselves. "As head of the village intake community, next Tuesday you need to discuss DNR. Do Not Return," she says.
As evidenced by the main order of business at tonight's meeting, things aren't always pretty at Dignity Village. But they are self-contained.
"It would be easy to look at Dignity Village and say, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of little sleeping pods.' But what you're actually seeing is that it's an inherently collaborative culture; they're in proximity and they're working and helping each other," says Lakeman, who would like to see this style of collaborative living replicated throughout the country. "The whole impetus for doing this is to see the restoration of the village — everywhere."
The community structure of Dignity Village hardly qualifies it as a utopia. "The community aspect here is pretty cool — not always, though," says Lisa. "We don't like each other at all times. We will fight like cats and dogs." Yet, Lisa also recalls the time a few years back when there was a fire in her structure. She and her husband were in the community room, and flames from a busted propane heater had an hour to smolder inside their unit before they realized. But, "By the time the fire department left we had clothes, we had blankets, we had food, we had a place to sleep. We had everything we really absolutely needed," Lisa says. The village has a stockpile of donated items it keeps in a shed, but that's not where this stuff came from. "This came from individuals."
"Even if we don't like each other, the village does pull together," Lisa says. "We're a family. Oh God, we're a dysfunctional family, but we're a family."
Sixteen years after its conception, Dignity Village has served as a model for several other homeless tiny home villages throughout the Northwest. Similar villages have also cropped up in towns such as Fresno, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and Ithaca, New York. They are a direct response to the increase in homeless tent encampments created during the Great Recession and housing crisis. Their existence is almost always contingent on the willingness of city officials to grant land to a project, and then to bend land use and zoning rules — villages are often situated on lots zoned for industrial use, and the tiny home structures themselves are classified in building code grey areas as things like trailers or "wooden tents."
While first and foremost a response to the acute problem of homelessness, villages like Dignity are also much more than that. They are experiments in conscious, communal living, of living along with, not just alongside, neighbors. The people who live in these villages, people who have become homeless for all sorts of reasons, all share one simultaneously heartbreaking and liberating quality: They have lost everything. And it's from that place of emptiness, of space, that a new way of living can emerge.