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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Alternatives to hostels: No. 3 - The Homeless Front

May 20 2009
Oregon‘s Dignity Village is the greatest accomplishment of the American poor since Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus Dignity Village, the former tent city in Portland, Oregon, USA, is the greatest accomplishment of the American poor since Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus. It is the physical embodiment of a dream and hard work on the part of the most oppressed people in society. Imagine a homeless community coming together to challenge a draconian piece of legislation, a camping ban, and living in tents on public land. Tents were a giant step up from the doorways they had been living in. Dignity's "original soldiers" refused to disband and return to the doorways despite being frog-marched by the police from site to site. They were swept five times! Their tactic of the shopping cart parade as they circled Jericho, waiting for cracks to appear in the City's walls, captured the public imagination. The Homeless Front's tenacity and persistence eventually paid off. In 2004 Dignity Village won legal sanction on its sixth site when it was officially designated a campground under an extant, but little known state statute. Dignity Village was born in the fire of direct action. When Portland's camping ban was challenged in September 2000, its homeless community immediately began organising the Out of the Doorways campaign. History had thrown down the gauntlet and Portland's homeless admirably rose to the challenge, and picked that gauntlet up. The original Out of the Doorways campaign was as popular as it was inclusive. Right away it attracted media attention, and not only from the street newspaper that was its initial sponsor. It also pulled aboard a great deal of support in the wider community. Supporters included everyone from artists to attorneys, from students to religious leaders from churches and the local mosque, and the homeless. Much of Dignity's vision sprang from those early, tumultuous meetings. When the Homeless Front's first eight soldiers occupied their first piece of public ground in December 2000, they were armed with the vision of the green, sustainable, urban village they wanted to create. They fought hard for the sanction they finally won, and their dwellings started to evolve. From the tents they began with, the residences turned into the eco-friendly structures and community spaces villagers enjoy today. Dignity's most recent proposal to the City of Portland said: "Dignity Village is the only place-based community in this town that practices grass roots democracy with an ecological vision. It is the only walkable community not invaded by cars, and it is the most cost efficient self-help model for transcending homelessness in the nation." The Dignity model has numerous advantages over more traditional shelter facilities. As most people are homeless for a period of less than a year, Dignity is flexible and expandable, and therefore able to accommodate fluctuations in demand. Compared to conventional facilities, tent cities are inexpensive to build and operate. They also minimise any impact on the land they occupy, and are easily transported when necessary. When combined with more permanent facilities such as showers, toilets, cooking and laundry facilities, community spaces, common areas and offices, communities like Dignity are perfect to meet the needs of the temporarily displaced. It should be pointed out that the term 'tent cities' is a bit of a misnomer, and is not meant to imply that housing structures are limited to only nylon and metal pole construction. Dignity Village, for example, currently has what is probably the largest assembled collection of eco-friendly dwellings using cob and straw bale constructive techniques in the Pacific Northwest. The Dignity model is one that cries out for replication and adaptation to the current British political, legal and social geography. Too many people in London are relegated to living in doorways and under bridges for a number of reasons. Many, including couples and A8 immigrants from Eastern Europe, are underserved in the current configuration of social services. Added to this, there is a built-in disincentive to seeking and finding steady employment while staying in many of the hostels, which makes them a less than desirable option for those who are actively seeking work. To this end, London's newly formed Homeless Front UK is running a Out of the Doorways campaign on this side of the pond. We are holding meetings and looking at promising sites on which to set up our first tent city. To help set us up in our endeavours we have some funding and a Tent Cities Tool Kit, jointly developed by Dignity Village and media partners Kwamba Productions. We urge all people interested in helping to ring us at 07956 494 664 or go to the website.
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