An example for homeless thriving in Portland

One thing most folks can agree on, Mark Lakeman says, is that the homeless need an opportunity to improve their situation in life.

“When you’re talking about people who have nothing, you have to give them a chance to get up and running,” Lakeman told a gathering of 40 people at the Madonna Inn on Friday morning.

Having a roof over their heads helps.

Lakeman, who has a design firm in Oregon, spoke at length about “Dignity Village,” a prototype program in Portland under which the homeless themselves work with other members of the community — including the government — to provide shelter for about 60 people who otherwise would be sleeping in the streets, in the bushes or in their cars.

They get more than shelter, however, said Lakeman, who has long been involved with Dignity Village. They come in looking for a roof over their heads, and acquire that, but they leave with far more — skills they have learned while staying at Dignity Village, including learn-by-doing leadership skills and lessons in how to work together to achieve positive change.

According to the Portland Oregonian, Dignity Village started in 2000 as homeless campers under a Portland bridge who were forced to move around town. In 2001, they landed at what was supposed to be a temporary home at the city-owned Sunderland Yard, next to a leaf-composting facility between a state prison and Portland International Airport.

The City Council designated the site a campground in 2004. In 2007, officials signed an agreement to essentially lease the site to the camp through June 2010 and spent more than $180,000 to replace tents with wooden structures and make other improvements.

The village is working well, Lakeman said Friday, and collaboration is a key.

In his slide presentation, Lakeman showed a potpourri of dwellings built by the homeless at Dignity Village. They varied widely in color, design and size, but they shared one thing: the involvement of the people who would live in them.

Others in the community also pitched in. In one case delineated by Lakeman, middle-school children helped an older woman, whose hands shook with palsy, to paint her house.

Most of the folks who come to Dignity Village stay three months, but some have hung on longer as the economy worsened.

The site can accommodate only a small number of Portland’s homeless population, which numbers in the thousands. Tenants decide who will go and who will stay. They have rules: no drugs, violence or alcohol, and everyone must join in community activities.

The way the nation now structures its cities and towns has drained our once-everyday ability and will to create common places, he said.

Dignity Village and its sister “cities” seek to recapture that through their design as well as their activities, he said.

Getting Dignity Village up and running, and keeping it on track, was no easy task, Lakeman said.

There are serious hurdles to leap over, Lakeman noted: liability, for example, or finding support services that help reintegrate the homeless into the larger society, and drug and alcohol counseling.

The local government also must be supple, he said. Authorities in Portland have been willing to work with Dignity Village on such things as housing codes, fire protection and law enforcement.

Lakeman said those questions are worked out in individual locales: “Every community has done things differently.”

Questions about codes and law enforcement Friday came largely from Lakeman’s audience, seasoned county observers who are well aware of San Luis Obispo County’s long-standing fight with rancher Dan De Vaul over codes.

De Vaul — who was not present Friday — has long said he wants to help the homeless; county code enforcers, backed by the Board of Supervisors, have gone after him for code violations.

Becky Jorgeson, a De Vaul ally, had invited Lakeman to speak. She said the community must do more to help the homeless — especially the homeless who do not have access to the regular shelters, because of drug or alcohol abuse or for other reasons.

Jorgeson said she believes a Dignity Village-type establishment could be set up in San Luis Obispo County.