- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — 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, sheetrock 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.

The most recent lease having expired at the end of October, residents have asked the city to extend their stay for up to 10 years. They have also 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 put an end to the whole experiment and encourage homeless people to go to shelters instead.

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

“Before the city invests more money into Dignity Village, we should know that there are actual people that have been helped,” said Michael Harrison, aide to Jim Francesconi, one of four city commissioners.

Dignity Village’s leaders argue they have already shown they are helping the homeless.

Benjamin Howard, a homeless man who serves as Dignity Village’s fire chief, said it is a place where people can develop a sense of stability, start looking for work, and then move into low-income housing.

About 200 have taken that step in the past two years, he said.

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

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. 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.

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