Pitching Tents
Mark Andresen

Pitching Tents

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.

"Dignity Village really started as a political encampment downtown, and they were making a lot of points that I tend to agree with on poverty and homelessness," says Eric Sten, the Portland commissioner in charge of homelessness. "In my opinion, they were originally trying to provoke a confrontation. The mayor and I talked about it, and we more or less agreed with their political point and weren't interested in having the police go and drag a bunch of activists around. So we gave them some time and said, 'Let's see if this can work.' I think it was a sincere message on our part, but we also didn't think it would work."

In the first two months of its existence, the city rousted Camp Dignity out of five different locations before finally suggesting the leaf-composting site as a sixty-day, temporary solution. "The model was actually working," Sten remembers, "so we found a really remote patch of city land. Remote not because we wanted to push them out, but because it's a very hard experiment to ask neighbors to accept." A local philanthropist kicked in the $20,000 that Portland officials estimated it would cost to have the homeless there instead of using the land for composting. That bought Dignity Village a six-month reprieve while its founders looked for a permanent place to pursue their idea of a self-sustainable, eco-friendly village and cooperative farm.

Unable to find such a spot, Dignity Village kept asking for, and getting, extensions; its booster continued paying the city $2,000 a month in rent. In late 2003, a conservative radio host challenged the legality of the tent city while Portland officials continued to waffle between vehement opposition to and cautious support of the project. Finally, on February 29, the city council officially designated one acre of the seven-acre composting facility as a transitional campground allowed under city code and began negotiating with Dignity Village on a ten-year lease.

"You cannot make all decisions for your citizens," says villager Dog Dave, who's always accompanied by his collie mix, Magic. "You have to give them the freedom to grow. Portland has a pretty progressive government in that sense. They put it back into our hands. There is no perfect system. There will always be problems when you have groups of people."

Over the past four years, Dignity Village has addressed many of the logistical issues involved with building a community, such as garbage and sewage service. The camp has three Port-O-Lets that are emptied weekly, as well as regular garbage pick-up -- costs covered either by donations or residents' sporadic paychecks. Hot showers are available, thanks to a donated propane heater, and the camp has six computers with Internet access so that residents can conduct job searches and create resumés.

Now that the camp is city-sanctioned, Dignity Village is finally a place to plan rather than just subsist. So its residents are asking Portland to start picking up the water and utility bills and to commit funds for site improvements. "None of these structures were meant to last," Dog Dave points out. "We were only supposed to be here two months. Everything you see here is the result of a holding pattern."

Cottonwoods and cattails dot the landscape where members of Denver's homeless community have proposed setting up their own refuge. The city park land at 50th Avenue and Franklin Street is surrounded by an industrial swath of crushing plants, welding shops, Maverick Ranch Natural Meats, the Franklin Street Recycling and Waste Transfer Facility and the Army National Guard Armory -- also one of Dignity Village's neighbors.

Signs along the trail warn visitors to "please be patient" as the Denver Department of Parks & Recreation's designated "natural area" develops along the Platte River. Down in the brush by the water, where the homeless are known to shelter, the signs are less friendly, warning "No overnight camping." But this spot at the border of Denver and Adams counties is remote enough to be out of the eyes of most NIMBY neighbors. Still, it has access to the Platte River Greenway that runs from the northern suburbs all the way through the city to Chatfield State Park, and downtown is only a half-hour bus ride away on the Number 7, even if it's a bit of a hike to the bus stop.

Late last year, the Denver Tent City Initiative suggested four possible locations for a 100- to 200-person tent city. One was Rude Park, at 12th Avenue and Federal Boulevard, which was dropped from the list to honor an agreement that Mayor John Hickenlooper made with that neighborhood's residents last fall. After the First Baptist Church closed its shelter, the city opened an emergency shelter at the Denver Department of Human Services, at 1200 Federal -- with the understanding that there would be no further placement of homeless in the area. That shelter closes on April 15; a new one will open soon after at the Mile High United Way building, on West 18th Street. A second proposed site, on Denver Housing Authority land between Lawrence and Arapahoe streets, from 25th to 29th Street, was also dropped from the list. That leaves just this open spot of land on the outskirts of town, or Vanderbilt Park, at Tennessee Avenue and Huron Street, which is just south of Ruby Hill and a very vocal group of neighbors.

Unlike Portland's Dignity Village, which took the it's-better-to-ask-forgiveness-than-permission approach, Denver's tent-city proponents are attempting to work through the city's legal and political channels before setting up camp. "Doing it this way is a win-win situation," says Dallas Malerbi, a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Denver who wrote the DTCI proposal. "It's a strong learning experience, and if it doesn't work, we can rest on the fact that we tried for a year to do it legally." Malerbi previously worked as an outreach counselor for Urban Peak, where Roxane White was the executive director until Hickenlooper tapped her to become the new head of the Department of Human Services.

Although Malerbi and the homeless people pushing the DTCI aren't quite ready to storm the banks of the Platte, they're not ruling it out. "People are getting frustrated with the paper-pushing," says Malerbi. "But all of this will help us whether the city says okay or if we have to do direct action."

Last month, a subcommittee of Denver's new Commission on Homelessness voted to send the DTCI proposal before the entire 36-member commission for review. The plan is bound to face some harsh criticism at the May 10 meeting, since it's more philosophical than pragmatic and leaves unanswered such questions as what the village would look like, how sanitation and garbage would be addressed and whether there would be security. The proposal requests that the city assist with the cost of water and utilities but says DTCI would rely on donations to cover everything else, including start-up costs for site improvements and materials to set up tents or other structures here. It also suggests a "professional staff to support the Tent City governance structure (e.g., security staff or perhaps a paid coordinator) should adequate funding be developed," an addition Malerbi made because he thought it might increase people's comfort level with the tent-city concept.

In October 2003, Hickenlooper announced that he was setting a goal of ending homelessness in Denver within the next ten years. He appointed former city councilwoman Debbie Ortega to head a new Commission on the Homeless, which was charged with looking at both long- and short-term solutions to the problem, including a possible tent city.

"The committee process has taken the proposal very seriously," Ortega says. "If they had not, they wouldn't have moved it to the commission to look at what other kinds of questions the commission might have. One of the things that is important to acknowledge is that the City of Denver has stepped to the plate -- number one, by creating the commission, and number two, by realizing that when First Baptist closed, it left a huge gap, so much so that they opened the Department of Human Services building for an emergency shelter. Plus, we have a plan for three shelters to be open, each for six months, giving the city eighteen months to work on filling that gap."

The initiative's most vocal opponents have been the city's shelter providers and homeless advocates, particularly John Parvensky, director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "For the most part, I don't think they're an adequate response to homelessness," he says of tent cities. "At this point, with the new homeless commission, there's a strong interest by the city government to address homelessness, and we feel that the tent city doesn't go far enough. We need to look at long-term solutions, such as long-term affordable housing and adequate emergency shelter."

With a tent city, he says, "we're relegating people to Third World conditions. It's great that they want to work together to solve the problem, but they need to find other solutions. If they were dealing in a vacuum and only impacting themselves, maybe it would be okay. But when you're dealing with issues of mental health and substance abuse, that impacts their ability to make rational decisions. To say they have the right to choose to do harm to themselves -- I don't think we'd stand by and say they have the right to do that."

Malerbi doesn't understand why a tent city and long-term solutions are mutually exclusive. As he sees it, Denver should use whatever innovative ideas are available -- particularly those suggested by the very people whom homeless advocates propose to help. "When you look at the zoning issues, when you look at the redevelopment of the Ballpark neighborhood, when you look at the amount of job loss, there isn't anything that tells me they want to create a permanent shelter, let alone permanent housing," says Malerbi, who is also the executive director of Save Our Section 8, a nonprofit working to increase affordable housing. "When you have panhandling-free zones flying through council, how does that end homelessness?"

Ed can't imagine a tent city in Denver. In fact, he has a hard time envisioning what his old home town looks like today. "What are they doing with Colfax?" he asks. "I hear there's some sort of redevelopment. And is anything finally happening on Wadsworth?" He hasn't seen a picture of the Mile High City in years.

Like Denver, Portland has a stated goal of ending homelessness. It's had that goal since 1986, when then-mayor Bud Clark created his twelve-point plan for "Breaking the cycle of homelessness," designed to coordinate and streamline resources and shift the city's approach to dealing with the homeless, from "managing the problem through law enforcement to creating a service-delivery system."

By 1992, Portland had committed $1.5 million plus another $6 million in federal funding to rebuild its diminishing stock of low-income housing and improve shelters and services. In 1999, Clark's vision was revamped to correspond with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development policies, and a fifteen-person Advisory Commission on Homeless Issues, which has since become the Portland/Multnomah County Commission on Homelessness, was set up. Today the budget for managing Portland's homeless has grown to $31 million, an annual figure patched together from federal money, state grants, private contributions, in-kind donations and city and county taxes. "Dignity works for a group of people," says Sten, "and I haven't diverted any money from our homeless system to put it out there. It's not a substitute for the shelters and drug-treatment programs, but it's a complement.

"They want to be a self-sustaining model," he adds, "and it really undermines a lot of their critics when they can say, 'We rent the space from the city; we don't get it for free.'"

Despite the increased budget and emphasis on solving the problem, Portland's commission estimated last year that there were still between 16,000 and 18,000 homeless people in the city and county. Like most cities, Portland relies on a point-in-time survey to identify the homeless. Census-takers go to shelters, knock on car windows, venture under bridges and down by rivers and look anywhere else that the homeless are likely to be. The final figure includes not just those on the streets, but people in shelters or transitional housing, as well as those about to be evicted or coming out of institutions with no place to go -- people also included in the national definition of homeless. All told, nearly 4,000 of Portland's homeless are without a place to sleep on any given night, with 2,550 requesting shelter and 1,571 sleeping outside or in their vehicles.

Denver, too, simply doesn't have enough beds for the butts that need them. The last Metro Denver Homeless Initiative point-in-time survey, conducted on January 27, 2003, by the multi-agency group that coordinates long-term planning and coordinated care for homeless people, found roughly 9,725 homeless in the metro area -- compared to 1,985 in 1990 -- with 6,885 of those people seeking emergency shelter and services. (Denver's definition of homeless also includes adults who are staying with relatives.) "These persons lacked a permanent place of their own and were sleeping in emergency shelters, on the streets or in their car, camping out, staying temporarily with family or friends, residing night-to-night at welfare hotels, coming out of institutions, or staying in other places not fit for human habitation," according to the report.

In 1990, there were shelter beds available for 55 percent of the known homeless in Denver; today that figure is only 10 percent. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in 2003 Denver had the greatest disparity between rents and incomes in the nation. HUD estimates that average rents in the metro area increased by 75 percent between 1989 and 1999, while average wages rose only 47 percent. Additionally, nearly 65 percent of the housing available for low-income families -- those making less than 30 percent of Denver's median income -- has been lost since 1992. A report by the Denver Homeless Planning Group, a division of the Department of Human Services, indicates that 2,665 low-income housing units disappeared as a result of fifty low-cost, single-room-occupancy residential hotels being closed since 1974.

More recently, the East Village housing project along Park Avenue West was demolished. The property that had held 286 low-income units is being redeveloped into an 800-unit, $177 million mixed-use development, which will include some public and affordable housing. "There were 250 low-income units. Hard stock, Section 8," Malerbi says. "That's been leveled, and it's not being rebuilt to replace 250 units. When they destroy low-income housing, they don't rebuild it."

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, however, has already added eighty new apartments earmarked for the chronically homeless with disabilities through its renovation of the downtown YMCA. And the organization is now getting ready to bring another hundred units for the chronically homeless on line, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that was announced by Hickenlooper on April 12. CCH will also receive up to $800,000 over the next three years from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide thirty beds of transitional housing for veterans.

"We're not sitting back and waiting for the commission to do its work before we implement solutions that we know work," Parvensky says. "Funding from HUD and the state division of housing will provide rental assistance and vouchers for a hundred chronically homeless individuals with disabilities . . .. The vouchers pay for subsidies to landlords, so an individual only pays 30 percent of their adjusted income. If they're disabled and receiving Social Security, they're probably paying $100 toward their rent, which can go up to as high as $500."

But that still leaves thousands of people trying to find shelter every night in Denver -- including families, who are usually split up at shelters. Shelters have other drawbacks, too: pet prohibitions, and rules that prevent people from leaving early enough to get day-labor jobs.

"Tent cities provide each resident with a degree of privacy in their dwelling, and autonomy in structuring their life within this habitat," the DTCI proposal argues. "Every human being needs a private respite from public life, and the eyes, rules and structures of outside authority. A homeless person is missing something more than mere physical shelter, they are missing a Œhome,' which includes the elements of privacy, autonomy and control, all of which are missing when one sleeps furtively on the streets or even when one must use a shelter for emergency survival."

But that doesn't mean a tent city is an easy solution -- especially since camping in Denver, whether on public or private property, is prohibited by city ordinance.

"If they're going to put the tent city in a park, there are charter problems with the park," says Assistant City Attorney Karen Aviles, who is advising the homeless commission. "The charter prohibits parks being used for non-park purposes. It has to be used for recreation and other things like that. There is a body of case law that helps define that. Having a tent city longer than overnight camping with the Boy Scouts is not a park purpose."

The only way to get around that, she says, is to amend the city charter, which requires a vote of the people. And should someone challenge the anti-camping ordinance in court, as occurred in Portland, Aviles adds, "I feel that the city has sufficient legal defenses to all legal challenges."

Still, Malerbi remains optimistic that Denver will have a tent city. "Once the city says we need to do this," he says, "we'll take it upon ourselves to make it happen."

You could easily drive past Dignity Village without realizing the tent city is there. The camp is tucked behind a high berm, given away only by a guard shack and a few cars parked at the entrance. There's a bus stop up the road a hundred feet or so, but it's primarily for people visiting the state prison next door to Dignity Village. Downtown is seven miles and a forty-minute bus ride away; the nearest convenience store is two miles away. But there are roughly thirteen cars in Dignity Village, and everyone barters and works together to figure out transportation.

Visitors must sign in with security, which is staffed by residents and operates on rotating shifts 24 hours a day. Dogs bark greetings and cats eye guests suspiciously. A few venture out of the tall grass to inspect visitors. Billbob -- no one is sure if his name is Bill or Bob -- is prone to latching on to anyone. In a village of homeless people, this cat is the one they consider to be homeless.

Almost everyone in Dignity Village has a job, although it's rarely a traditional nine-to-five situation. Some villagers work retail, at a grocery store or making pizzas. But the $6.50 minimum wage just isn't enough to make rent, so they all call this tent city home.

There's only one actual tent in the camp, and it's used as dry storage. The rest of Dignity Village's structures have evolved into eclectic mixes of scavenged and donated material: planks, plastic, tarps. Some have front porches with flower boxes, while another has junk spewed out front in a ten-foot radius. Each structure houses a family or individual; no one is forced to bunk with anyone else, as they are at most homeless shelters. Pirate flags, Dutch flags and U.S. flags all fly high, marking the newfound homeland -- but none fly higher than the Dignity Village standard that waves from the top of the windmill at the town center.

The media room, an old airport-shuttle bus, is parked here, prominently announcing "Dignity Village" on its destination sign. (Late last month, the bus was one of three sites in Portland to offer a public screening of the new documentary Bums' Paradise.) A communal garden plot lies dormant. Last summer, residents ate meals made from the produce they'd grown; this summer, they hope to grow enough to have excess to give away to other homeless facilities or sell at farmers' markets. Right now they're more reliant on the charity of others, although they've gotten quite inventive with what they can cook using just the camp stove. The smell of goat curry wafts through the common dining area, courtesy of the culinary efforts of two women from a nearby mosque. Later, beef stew and corn bread will be delivered. The Hostess doughnut truck used to show up regularly in the mornings, but the villagers haven't seen it for a while.

As befits a town as green as Portland, even the homeless recycle -- whether it's building materials or collecting cans. Dignity Village hopes to eventually harness solar and wind power and collect rainfall and grey water to use on gardens and possibly in showers; for now, recycling bins are passed out, and an eco-architect consults with residents on how to build better homes.

Jack walks by one such dwelling, beaming. It's a straw-bale construction covered in an adobe-like mud. The structure has two windows and a front porch and cost only $500 to build, not including labor -- but Jack says they threw this one up in just three weekends. Eventually, as people move on and funds become available, he'd like to upgrade all of the structures to straw bale. This one-room marvel serves as the donation center, protecting the camp's most coveted supplies: Pepsi, Coke, bottled water, soap, tampons, razors, pancake mix, pots and whatever else is given to Dignity Village. Lleanne has the duty of making sure everything is distributed in an equitable, as-needed manner. That's part of her ten-hour weekly commitment to Dignity; every resident must contribute at least that much community-service time in order to stay.

A council of up to 25 residents manages the operations of the village, which is incorporated as a nonprofit, and all expenditures and decisions are voted on by the council. A meeting is scheduled for tonight, but for the second time in a row, there's no quorum. As a result, no business can happen, no checks will be cut. Tim, the camp's treasurer, is tight-fisted, and he refuses to spend money on anything but the basic necessities. He's currently being lobbied to upgrade the Internet service to DSL, but he's skeptical of the cost. A dial-up modem is good enough for him -- but then, he's a bit of a Luddite. The council also issues notices of non-compliance to those residents who haven't met their weekly time commitments. And although the village tries to make opportunities for people to catch up, residents occasionally are asked to leave.

"We don't lose sight of the individual," says Dog Dave, whose father died on the streets. "We try to be more tolerant than the existing care system. This is like the last stop. They come here with a lot of baggage. We really try to work with people and allow the individual to work it out, and we support them while they're doing that. The best thing is we're providing a safety net that didn't exist before. It's not a big one, but this is where it starts."

"Dignity Village is successful because they formed a community for people out at the margins," Sten says, "and that community has allowed them to come back."

There's a waiting list to get into Dignity Village, which can legally house only sixty people; anyone who wants to live here has to fill out an application. As people leave -- sometimes for permanent housing, sometimes to return to the streets -- a committee cleans their structures and makes them ready for the next resident. Dignity Village is not transient; people can't just come in and pitch tents for the night. That helps keep the camp secure and safe, a point on which both the police and villagers agree.

"We've never had a rape; we've never had a murder," Jack says. "Do I think we've prevented a few rapes? Yes. Usually a woman is raped within eleven days of becoming homeless."

In fact, walking through the hordes of frat boys in LoDo at 2 a.m. is far scarier than stumbling through the darkness of Dignity looking for a Port-O-Let.

The sky has cleared and the sun is out. It is 6 a.m., and Dignity Village looks shiny and new, having temporarily dried out. Already, sounds are coming from the common area about twenty feet from Jack's structure.

The night had been calm and uneventful, except for Jack stopping by to get his toothbrush for the morning; he had to leave the village at 4 a.m. to get to work. Even the sound of the coyotes was soothing. The sleeping bag was deep and warm, the stack of pillows the perfect amount of fluffy. It had been a damned fine night's sleep.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >