On our second day of the Urban Immersion we visited several organizations that advocate for those suffering from houselessness; we participated in morning hospitality service at St. Andre Bessette, heard from one of the coordinators of a youth advocacy group called P:EAR, visited a tiny house community called Dignity Village, and helped pack food items at the Oregon Food Bank. The most impactful experience for me was hearing from one of the residents and at Dignity Village. She took us on a tour of their private community and explained how the village was created as well as the requirements for residency and the intake process. She explained some of the things that make Dignity Village successful like their policy of no drug or alcohol use on site, each member is required to serve at least ten hours a week in the community somehow, whether that was chopping firewood, monitoring their security building, fixing bicycles, etc., and their system of self-government where each member gets to share their input and collectively vote on community decisions. I was surprised to learn that among the forty-plus tiny homes there was only one shower and one community kitchen/gathering space that everyone shared. This along with the requirements of being a resident and their system of government make the community a pretty tight knit place that honors togetherness and the shared experience of living in a group and helping each other, as well as accountability for one’s service and commitment to the community.
Our tour guide also shared her personal story with us which involved two abusive partners and a long struggle with alcoholism. I could tell that it was hard for her to share with us, and she mentioned it taking her a long time to be honest with herself and eventually others. After leaving her second abusive relationship, she and her new partner eventually wound up on the streets traveling from place to place and living mostly in tents and vacant houses. Then someone told them about Dignity Village and now ten years later they are still there and have taken on leadership roles within the community, they are referred to by some as “Mom and Dad” of Dignity Village. What I learned from our time at Dignity Village is that it is possible for a community of people that do not have homes (in the traditional sense) to still be extremely productive members of society. In their small space in NE Portland, members of Dignity Village are collectively helping each other and themselves in their transition into homes and better lives. It is an extremely successful example of a system of transition housing for people living on the streets that promotes accountability, positivity, and community and should be looked to as a model for future housing projects in our city.