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Pitching Tents

A camp for the homeless works in Portland. Can it work here, too?

It's dark and rainy outside, but in here it's warm. Keith has just put another piece of scavenged wood in the stove, and the fire's popping brightly, illuminating the surrounding faces. Ed, Dog Dave, Tim, JP, Shaun, Mark. A train whistle cuts through the incessant sound of rain beating on the roof. Two cans of chili sit warming on top of the stove; two pairs of feet are propped on the fire-pit door -- an attempt to stave off the ever-encroaching dampness.

The common building of Dignity Village, Portland's newly legalized tent city, is wired for electricity, but the cost is too high to justify the pleasure of evening light. Instead, residents gather around the fire. For the most part, life in this encampment is early to bed, early to rise; by 6 a.m., the fire will again be surrounded by people preparing pancakes and bacon over the flame, people rolling cigarettes for the day, people getting ready to leave for work at Portland's Saturday Market. But right now, all that can be seen are the glowing trails of cigarettes, a visual dance through the evening's animated conversations on the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the politics of Portland and spirituality.

"I've got some propane left, so I've got light in my place. Want to go have Bible study?" Keith asks Shaun.

Jeremy enters the building before they can decide, and the two start ministering to the younger man. Not in a hellfire-and-brimstone way, but in a dude-you're-fucking-up-your-life-and-you've-got-to-stop way. Jeremy knows he needs help, and today he got down on his knees and prayed. The big guy answered. "If you want that to happen every day, you have to trust," Keith tells Jeremy.

They all nod in agreement. Although not everyone sitting around the fire is a Christian, they all consider themselves spiritual. Muslims, Christians, atheists and Rastafarians co-exist in Dignity Village. So do African-Americans, gays, teenagers and society's outcasts.

"I just love these fireside chats," Ed pops off before the mood can get too serious.

A Denver native and a Vietnam vet, Ed Martin wound up on the streets after moving to Portland to be closer to his kids. Today he's the tent city's director of security -- and its quiet curmudgeon. He takes no shit from any of the village's sixty residents and strictly enforces Dignity's self-imposed no-drink-or-drugs rule. When Mark gets a little loud, Ed forcefully suggests that the much younger man return to his place. "You know how I feel about booze on the tarmac," he warns.

Mark doesn't actually have any liquor with him; he's just a little toasted, having had a few before coming home to Dignity Village. But Ed's not taking any chances. No one is. The village is their community, their place out of the rain.


"It's nice to hear the rain on my roof instead of on my head," says Jack Tafari, sitting on a cot in his structure, as the villagers call each living area. Jack's one-man structure is a paradise compared to the doorways he's slept in and the bridges he's lived under. The roughly ten-foot-by-ten-foot space is cluttered with clothes, Dignity Village paraphernalia and photos, including ones of his children; bright red, yellow and green Rastafarian trappings add color to the blanket- and plastic-covered walls. There's no electricity or running water in the structure, but it's clean, it's dry and it's his.

Like Dignity Village's other structures, Jack's is made of found wood on freight pallets. The camp sits on Portland's leaf-composting facility, so everything is built off the ground to avoid pooling water -- great for composting, not so great for construction. The drainage is so bad that one area in the camp is called "Lake Dignity," though it's really just a very large puddle. The waterfront makes for prime real estate, Jack says.

The only downside to living with the water are the rats that come with it. But many of the residents' pets are good hunters, and they keep the rodent population largely under control. Occasionally, though, the men have to go and bludgeon a rat to death. Today it took eight strikes with a shovel.

Jack, the camp's chief Rasta, has been homeless for many of his fifty-plus years. Some of that was by choice, as he drifted across Europe, the United States and Canada. Other times, he landed on the streets after losing jobs. He's an articulate man who casually moves between formal English and a Creole/Rasta dialect. Illiterate until the age of eighteen, he's now fluent in Dutch as well as English and, increasingly, the language of Portland politics. The candidates in the upcoming mayoral election all know Jack by name, and underdog Tom Potter is actively touting Jack's endorsement.

Jack is one of the few original residents of Camp Dignity, as it was first called, remaining at Dignity Village. The encampment got its start in December 2000, when eight homeless men and women pitched tents in a muddy field after a county circuit court judge, while declining to overturn the then-nineteen-year-old ordinance banning camping, still ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment for the city to arrest people for sleeping on the streets when there weren't enough emergency shelter beds or low-income housing units.

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