What a homeless camp could be

Is Portland’s Dignity Village a model of what could happen in Chico?

SEEDS OF CHANGE<br>Timothy McCarthy, chairman of Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., stands in his garden at the homeless camp. The camp, which has evolved from a tent city into a place with permanent structures, is also a nonprofit organization.

Timothy McCarthy, chairman of Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., stands in his garden at the homeless camp. The camp, which has evolved from a tent city into a place with permanent structures, is also a nonprofit organization.

Courtesy Of Dignity Village

For more on Dignity Village:The Portland, Ore., homeless camp’s Web site has photos, news updates and other information. It’s at www.dignityvillage.org.

The idea of a homeless camp in Chico has been floating around lately. Some people are against it; others are gung-ho. But what are we really talking about when we say “homeless camp"? What are the possibilities?

There’s no clear picture yet in Chico, but based on a similar project in Oregon and what local homeless people have to say, one can begin to envision what could be.

The Homeless Task Force in Chico—headed by Andy Holcombe, who is also on the City Council—has been using Dignity Village in Portland as a sort of model for what could happen in Chico. In a meeting at the Jesus Center last Thursday (Oct. 19), Holcombe and the task force discussed possibilities and sought feedback from the homeless—"What do you want?” he asked.

Among the biggest desires: bathrooms and showers, a community garden, proximity to downtown. Among the biggest concerns: safety, rules, drugs and alcohol. Bringing the desires and concerns of the homeless together with the desires and concerns of the city will be a trick that could take a while. Finding a parcel of land alone could take six months to a year, Holcombe speculated.

Up in Portland, about six years ago, a group of homeless people got together and started a camp on their own, on city property, as an act of civil disobedience. They were moved six times before settling on their current lot, designated by the city, which they’ve occupied since 2001. They call their camp Dignity Village.

“We have actually evolved from a tent city to having little homes,” said Timothy McCarthy, Dignity Village chairman. About 40 people live there now, and the city set the cap at 60. Most have moved in since January, but some, like McCarthy, have lived there for years.

“For homeless taking care of homeless, we’re doing pretty good,” McCarthy said. “Of course, we have our little squabbles, as everyone will.”

There are five basic rules for living in Dignity Village: No violence to yourself or others; no theft; no drugs or alcohol (on site); no continuous disruptive behavior; and everyone must contribute—about 10 hours of work a week. One of the keys to enforcing the rules is that the homeless made them themselves.

“You have to let the homeless people decide how they want to live, how they want to govern themselves,” McCarthy said. “We learned that it’s much, much easier that way than if you have a group of people not living there trying to tell you what homeless people need.”

Holcombe agrees, saying he believes it will take an effort on the part of the homeless to make this concept work. “It needs to be self-regulating,” he said. That’s why he set up the meeting last week to get their ideas.

Ed Francia, who attended the meeting, suggested a commune-like camp, where everyone contributes what they can. He said he bets if you get enough homeless people together, they could build their own shelter, preferably with small studios.

“And it’d have to have a meeting room,” he said.

Ed Francia

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Dignity Village has that and more. There is a community room with computers hooked up to the Internet for job-hunting and checking e-mail. There are showers with propane-fueled water heaters. And they hope to install real restrooms, instead of using port-o-potties, in the near future.

There is plenty of opposition to the idea of a homeless camp in Chico—people are concerned about bringing a “bad element” into their neighborhood. So perhaps the biggest roadblock a homeless camp will encounter is finding a location. It could either be a city or county parcel, or donated by a private owner.

“Quite likely the best place for a camp would be in the county,” Holcombe said. “It’s very unlikely that the city would designate public land [for a camp].”

It’s also highly unlikely that the city will pony up much money for a homeless camp, Holcombe said. It would be great, though, “if this homeless camp discussion should morph into putting more energy into a detox center,” something that would benefit both the city and county. Most agree that a homeless camp should be drug- and alcohol-free.

At least one private landowner has offered up space for a camp: Robert Seals of the Serenity Center. He submitted a proposal at a previous Homeless Task Force meeting but was met with concern about land use and zoning. His church, the Universal Life Church, is leasing to own about 40 acres off Dayton Road just southeast of town—on county, agriculturally zoned land.

“What we’re talking about is getting people out of the weather,” Seals said. “This is a way to level the playing field a little bit, to give back a little bit from the haves to the have-nots.”

His proposal includes an area for camping that is insulated from the surrounding neighborhoods. People would not be able to leave their belongings or stay on the property during the day, but they would be allowed to bring their pets. His vision includes a green landscaping service (no gas-powered tools) for which the homeless could work to make money.

There are already a few structures on the land, and Seals plans to convert one of them into a shelter with about 10 beds, hopefully in the next month, before the weather turns cold. He will target those with pets who cannot stay in the Torres Community Shelter.

“We’ll offer a bunk; you bring your own bedding,” Seals said. “And we’ll have a watchman. This is a church function, so there is no issue of permitting—I don’t need anybody’s permission to do this.”

Chico already has a shelter, of course—the Torres shelter—but strict rules on substance use, restrictions against animals and a six-month maximum stay per year mean some people remain on the street rather than utilize its services.

A camp like Dignity Village, which is open all day, would offer quite a bit more freedom and flexibility to the homeless.

“It’s important to have a place where they’re safe and can leave their belongings,” McCarthy said. “If you don’t have a place to leave your belongings or take a shower, you’re never going to get a job. Most of what the homeless need is a chance to get their life back together.”

TENTS NO MORE<br />At Dignity Village, each person has about 150 square feet to live in. There is no electricity or running water in the housing units.Dignity VillageA GOOD SIGN Volunteers for the This Way to Sustainability II conference gather in the BMU before heading off to one of their final planning meetings. They are, from left: Sylvie Cares, Lexi Bakkar, Francine Stuelpnagel, Cameron Scott, Kate Taft, Amy Sturgill and Max Kee

Courtesy Of Dignity Village

Holcombe agrees. "What we really want is to give people in our community a chance to be more successful," he said about a camp. "When you put it that way, it’s hard to see how anyone would be against it."