Matt Forney
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A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens

dignity-village

They call it “Dignity Village” because that’s the only thing you have to give up in order to stay there.

The place gets a lot of attention in left-wing circles, for obvious reasons: it’s the only officially chartered squatters’ camp in North America. Operated according to socialist principles, the Village has amenities that no other homeless settlement has, such as electricity, running water,  showers and Internet access.

None of the fawning news reports ever talk about the smell.

You start to notice it nearing the front gates; the stank of running sewage. The perpetually rainy weather doesn’t help either. As I trudged to the entrance, I kept telling myself I was doing it for the story.

Actually getting to Dignity Village is a minor struggle in and of itself. It’s located on the northern edge of Portland, on an abandoned lot sandwiched between the airport and a state prison, far away from the city center and most of the bus routes. There aren’t any sidewalks for much of the way either. Walking into the guard shack at the entrance, a disheveled and bored-looking bum at the desk asked, “Can I help you?”

“I’d like to stay for the night, if I could,” I replied.

“Okay, you’ll need to get approval first.” He reached for a telephone, presumably to call his boss. “Sign in with your first name here.” He gestured to a sign-in sheet on his desk. I scrawled “Matthew” in cursive and waited for the guard to finish. Shortly thereafter, a oldish woman gestured to me from outside. “She’ll show you around,” the guard grumbled. I limped over to her.

“Welcome to Dignity Village!” She was gruff but friendly, and looked aged beyond her years; her face was etched with creases, like she’d spent too much time out in the sun smoking Marlboros. “First things first, how long were you looking to stay?”

“A night, maybe two,” I instinctively replied.

“Okay, just so you know, you’ll need approval from all of the village elders if you want to stay longer than one night,” she stated. “Let me show you where you can and can’t go.”

She led me down the front entrance to an intersection with shantyhouses stretching off to the left and right. Grills, stoves and other appliances were in front of several of the abodes, with bums in ragged clothing coming and going. In front of us was the largest house, and to its left a brown latrine-like structure with huge water tanks hooked up on the outside. The place smelled unsanitary. Overhead, the storm clouds swelled with rain.

“Okay, as a guest of Dignity Village, you’re not allowed to go more than ten feet in that direction”—she pointed to the left—“or that one,” pointing to the right. “That’s the common building,” she gestured to the large shantyhouse, “which is where you’ll be staying. To the left are the showers and bathrooms, and we also have computers and Internet access back in the security office.” She gestured back towards the entrance. “Also, we don’t allow alcohol, drugs or fighting.”

“Do you have WiFi?” I asked.

“We do, but because some people were using it to illegally download movies, we limit access to certain people,” she responded. “Follow me.”

She took me inside the common building, which carried an odor of stale armpit funk and urine. The linoleum floor was dirty and covered in scuff marks. A couple of tables were set up near the door, with bananas, cookies, styrofoam cups and a coffeemaker. Over in the corner was a deluxe-sized HDTV playing what looked like Braveheart.

“We have a simple rule here at Dignity Village: if it’s not yours, you don’t touch it.” She looked at my overflowing backpack. “Still, you should keep an eye on your things.”

I nodded in response.

“Okay, that just about covers it,” the woman finished. “Bob over there will make sure you get what you need.”

She pointed at another bum in a worn green jacket and a plaid lumberjack shirt opening a box. “You need any blankets or food or anything?”

“No, I’m good,” I responded. “I’m going to go take a shower.”

I humped my things over to the shower building. The inside looked like a rapist’s basement; there were no lights and only a small window near the ceiling. But the facility was sparkling clean, more so than some of the motels I’ve stayed at. On a table next to the shower stall itself was a little table containing travel-sized shampoo bottles and bars of soap nicked from hotels. I tossed my bag in a corner, pulled out my own shampoo and soap, and undressed.

I cranked the hot water up to just below the point where it would cause a first-degree burn, like I’d been doing for months. It was only around 35 degrees out, but spending months in a place where it gets to 20 below in October wears on you. God, it felt so good. The shower room was poorly ventilated and by the time I was done, the air was pregnant with steam and the window was fogged up. I dried myself off with my towel, then put on clean clothes and left.

Sleep deprivation is a real pain. I can go days with nothing more than vitamins and water, but if I don’t get at least six hours of sleep a night, I’m a dead-eyed zombie the next day. My body instinctively directed me back to the common room, where I found an empty chair near the door and collapsed. I instinctively draped my legs over my bag in case someone tried to rip me off, though it was unlikely; my backpack was too heavy for anyone to grab without waking me up.

The next few hours were hazy, as I drifted in and out of slumber. At some point, the movie ended and the bums changed the channel to the Hurricane Sandy relief concert. I heard murmurs about a Nirvana performance featuring Paul McCartney replacing Kurt Cobain. I was too tired to pay attention. At some point later that night, the room emptied out. Spotting an empty, moth-eaten couch, I seized my opportunity and dragged my things over to lie down. Someone shut the TV and lights off at one point, after I’d crashed for good.

I awoke some time around 7:30. Some bums had turned the TV on and were watching the morning news. I rustled myself up and noticed that someone had thrown a blanket over me while I was sleeping. Pulling my boots back on, I noticed sunlight streaming in through the windows. It was the first time I’d seen the sun in a week.

“Fucking asshole!” a old female bum shouted.

The anchorman was talking about some guy who had gone a shooting spree in one of the suburbs and had killed two people before offing himself. The usual.

“What a dumbass,” the bum continued. “You want to kill yourself, fine, but don’t kill other people in the process!”

I didn’t respond. The conversation turned to the amount of media coverage the shooting was getting. Still drowsy, I only picked up bits and pieces. The bums ignored me.

“There are shootings in Lloyd Center every day, but nobody cares. Only when it happens out in Beaverton or Clackamas does anyone pay attention.”

“The city council won’t let us build an encampment closer to downtown. It’s pretty obvious that Portland doesn’t give a shit about the homeless.”

Scanning a bulletin board, I saw the requirements for people who wanted to stay longer than a day. Anyone who stayed at least three days was expected to contribute at least five hours of “sweat equity,” the Village’s cutesy term for unpaid labor. There were also bus schedules and other notices.

I had things to do, so I grabbed my bags and trotted over to the shower. It was just as pristine as yesterday. After another scrubdown, I made my way over to the guard shack, the only way out. The rain was long gone and the pavement had dried up.

“I want to sign out,” I stated.

“Okay, let me get the sheet,” said the woman on guard. “Your name is…”

“Matt,” I replied. “I signed in yesterday afternoon.”

She flipped through some papers before finding my name. “Okay, you’re good to go.”

“Thanks.”

I slung my bag over my shoulders and marched out into the sunrise.

***

“Did you know that the term ‘skid row’ originated here in Portland?”

Trevor and I walked down Second Avenue towards Burnside, him pointing out the various sights. I’d met him and Jack a couple weeks before for drinks and arranged a tour of downtown Portland later.

“Really?” I was enthralled. Trevor is not very tall and he’s rather soft-spoken, but there’s something about the careful, deliberate way he talks that forces you to pay attention. I understood why Jack referred to him as “Vulcan.”

“Yes. Back during the 1800’s, there was a clearing on the Willamette River where jobless men would settle looking for work. It became known as ‘skid row’ because they would skid trees they had cut down here from the hills. When the city of Portland was founded, the clearing was where Burnside Street was constructed, and where the Rescue Mission and most other services for the homeless are headquartered. So even before Portland existed—back during the Oregon Territory days—this was still a place where men who were down on their luck congregated.”

“Wow,” I stammered as we turned the corner onto Burnside. “I did notice that there were a lot of homeless guys around here.”

“Yeah,” Trevor continued. “In most cities, the poor and the rich are segregated and keep their distance from one another. Portland is one of the only places in America where you will see the homeless and the moneyed side by side, here on Burnside.”

Trevor turned down 3rd Avenue and I followed, underneath the cold gray sky.

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