[Hpn] Seattletimes.com: Village for homeless at crossroads

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Village for homeless at crossroads
Full story: http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis.cgi/web/vortex/display?slug=homeless09&date=20031209

By Sarah Linn
The Associated Press


 PORTLAND  —  On a one-acre patch of asphalt near the airport, about 80 homeless people are living in shelters slapped together out of scavenged planks, plastic, plasterboard and cardboard. But this is no ordinary shantytown.

 Dignity Village, as it is called, is an unusual social experiment: a government-sanctioned encampment for the homeless.

 Besides holding a city lease, it has its own government, maintains a Web site and operates as a nonprofit corporation. Residents get free legal advice from local lawyers, medical aid from a homeless shelter and financial support from a national network of charitable donors.

 "There really isn't another model in the country that is as well-organized as Dignity Village," said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. "It's pretty revolutionary."

 Two years after it was built, though, Dignity Village has reached a crossroads.

 Its most recent lease expired at the end of October, and residents have asked the city to extend their stay for up to 10 years. They also have requested that the city stop charging rent for the site and make thousands of dollars in improvements at the location.

 The request has set off a debate among city officials over whether to sink money into the project or end the experiment and encourage homeless people to go to shelters instead.

 Some officials say shelters do a better job of providing health and job services.

 "The shelter system is more successful and more compassionate," said Michael Harrison, aide to Jim Francesconi, one of four city commissioners. "Before the city invests more money into Dignity Village, we should know that there are actual people that have been helped."

 Dignity Village's leaders say they have demonstrated they are helping the homeless.

 Benjamin Howard, a homeless man who serves as Dignity Village's fire chief, said it is a place people can develop a sense of stability, start looking for work and move into low-income housing. About 200 have taken that step in the past two years, he said.

 Portland has about 2,000 homeless people, and 20 homeless shelters run by the city and private organizations.

 Other cities generally do not tolerate large-scale encampments of homeless people. In October, Seattle cracked down on "The Jungle," a homeless camp in the woods. In Anchorage, authorities cleared out about 50 sites in May because of the danger posed by the homeless people's campfires.

 Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he thinks Dignity Village is the nation's only camp for the homeless that is officially supported by a city government.

 Homeless people set up the encampment in September 2001 and won permission from the City Council. Dignity Village pays the city more than $20,000 a year for rent, water and garbage pickup, with most of the money coming from donations. It has rudimentary utilities, including portable toilets and electricity provided by a windmill.

 "It's a good resource that's helped a lot of vulnerable and lost people get back on their feet," said City Commissioner Erik Sten, one of Dignity Village's biggest supporters. But he said a 10-year extension may be too long and the city should not pick up all the costs the residents have requested for safety and sewage improvements.

 Many homeless people prefer Dignity Village to shelters because it offers self-government and more freedom. Unlike shelters, it has no curfew.

 It is governed by four board officers, who handle administrative concerns, and 11 council members, who manage day-to-day operations. Residents who become violent or disrespectful or use drugs or alcohol are given 24 hours outside of Dignity Village to cool off. Repeat offenders can be expelled.

 "We've never had a rape here. We've never had a murder," said village Chairman Jack Tafari. "If a girl goes 'peep,' there's 12 big, hairy guys there in a second."

 Villagers are required to contribute to the camp's upkeep, either through chores or by working outside Dignity Village.

 "This is not Utopia," Howard said. "It's not where I really want to be. But it's better than a lot of places I've been in."

 Cat Spry, 17, lives at Dignity Village with her mother and father. Spry is working to get her high-school diploma.

 "My options were the street or the village," she said. "And thank God the village was there."

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