Portland, Oregon – like Abbotsford – has been grappling with how to handle homelessness.
In an ongoing experiment started 13 years ago, the city freely leased land to a group of homeless people to set up a “transitional housing campground.”
The site, named Dignity Village, sits on about two acres in an industrial part of town. The current 43 shelters can house a maximum of 60 people, each of whom can stay at the campground for up to two years. Amid the scattering of “glorified wood sheds” is electricity, a septic system, Internet, and 24/7 security. The cost, says resident and outreach coordinator Scott Layman, is about $2 per person, per day. He estimates that a city-managed emergency shelter costs seven times that. It cost Dignity Village $2,500 during startup for the electric and sewage hookups, and about $1,500 monthly to maintain.
“We provide a clean and safe place for people to come and get back on their feet,” said Layman. “We have helped thousands of people move from homelessness to permanent housing.”
Instead of waiting in line daily for a bed to sleep in, residents can trust that they have access to a shower and a place to keep their belongings while they search for work or keep jobs. They share an address and phone number, and don’t pay for their shelters. Operational costs are covered through micro-businesses within the campground.
The city still owns the land, and requires that Dignity Village carry liability and fire insurance. The health department also regularly checks that health and safety standards are met.
Although the City of Portland referred to Dignity Village as “an affordable, alternative strategy,” the city does not encourage more such campgrounds.
“The city invests in creating affordable homes and rapid rehousing through rent assistance and eviction prevention. Setting up, owning or operating campgrounds are not part of the city’s plan to end homelessness,” said Portland Housing Bureau’s public information officer Jaymee Cuti.
Seattle, meanwhile, forcibly evicted 100 people from a two-year illegal encampment called Nickelsville on Sept. 1, 2013. There were complaints of flooding, rat infestation, and police calls, according to the Seattle Times. The city was also battling a $1.65-million lawsuit from a business owner who argued that the camp affected his property value.
Dignity Village has admitted to a rodent problem as well, but Layman insisted that the site is cleaner and safer than traditional emergency shelters, and that no one has filed serious complaints.
Many former residents from Seattle’s Nickelsville have moved into tent cities, such as those run by non-profit Share/Wheel. These still provide a roof and services, but residents have to pack up and move to another borrowed site every 90 days. That’s the maximum time that Seattle allows them to stay under the “temporary use permit.”
Like Dignity Village, the tent cities provide people with the reliable bed and shower they need in order to be presentable at job interviews or at work, said resident and volunteer worker Gregor Talbot. Many of the residents are professionals such as nurses and software developers, Talbot said, who suffered during the recession, perhaps had their homes foreclosed, and now need a place to stay until they can get back on their feet. Their employers likely don’t know they are living in a tent city. Share/Wheel’s two outdoor tent cities and 16 indoor facilities provide emergency homes for about 500 people.
Talbot argues that such tent cities are less expensive than a city-managed shelter, safe, and don’t cause problems in the neighbourhood.
Neighbours see it differently, however, and frequently file complaints. That may be because unlike Dignity Village, Share/Wheel frequently ends up opening temporary tent cities in residential areas. At present, they have one on freely loaned church land in an affluent suburban area in Redmond, 15 minutes from the Microsoft building.