Need for Temporary Shelter Spaces Growing Fast in Portland; Rainy Season 60 Days Ahead; Public Health Emergency Possible

August 4, 2009

Tent Cities on the increase nationally

a California tent city

“Tent cities” and temporary emergency encampments are quickly becoming a necessity in cities all over the U.S.  Around our country, emergency camping is being legalized in designated, sometimes supervised urban areas – both urban and rural.

Allowing camping locally can give immediate stress relief for thousands who are otherwise unable to get a full night’s sleep anywhere.It has proven out generally that such encampments function best if with smaller populations, and when provided with basic support from local government — i.e. porta-potties, trash receptacles, a clean water supply, and compassionate, minimal policing.

Seattle has three well-governed tent cities

Seattle has three well-governed tent cities

Tent cities are a only quick fix to alleviate immediate suffering.  Nonetheless, for now we do need to allow for tent cities here in the Portland metro.  Local government agencies which address homelessness (the CCEH’s, and the Housing Bureaus) have been doing a steady, sure job of increasing local shelter and housing inventories. 

However, the numbers of newly homeless have very quickly gotten way beyond their reach.

Federal aid for housing etc. is forecast to fall  in coming years, even while the numbers of homeless are expected to rise greatly. Oregon is now ranked as the worst state in the U.S. in terms of homelessness as a percentage of overall population! We have at least 9000 un-sheltered people currently in the Portland metro area.



We must develop local solutions. The rapid increase in homelessness is fast making for a public emergency in Portland, Oregon.

The longer term goals of The GROWS Committee are to encourage local leaders to work toward developing lots of green work programs, decent low-cost shelters, and therapeutic communities for those experiencing homelessness. Basic, affordable economic development is needed to help people lift themselves out of  poverty.

With or without jobs, the ongoing inability of some 9000 (+) locals to acquire shelter (not even being allowed to pitch their own tents legally anywhere in the City) does indeed pose a grave and immediate threat to public health and safety.

Bold and well-coordinated action is needed soon in order to effectively check the unfolding of many and various public emergencies. We are hopeful, that our elected leaders — at the helm in these perilous times — will take their oaths to protect public health and safety very seriously.

We are hopeful that our elected leaders will better recognize soon that there is now unfolding a fast increasing likelihood of serious epidemics and crime waves in our City due to this unchecked crisis of so many among us without simple shelter.

The shelter issue in particular needs effective action before the start of the rainy season this year.

wet sleeping bags

wet sleeping bags

For Portland City leaders to refuse to allow homeless people the right to  put up simple shelter anywhere in the City is bad.

To continue to deny record numbers of un-sheltered people any right to legally pitch a tent after the rainy season begins – would be worse than bad.   It would be cruel.



While our City continues to do a sure, steady job of building or acquiring more long term, traditional low income housing,  we can in the meantime provide very inexpensive transitional housing or shelter – simply by allowing well-governed tent cites or other low-impact encampments.

The tent cities of Seattle have become proficient at self-policing. Their residents don’t want illegal activities happening any more than the neighbors do. Self-policing in cooperation with local authorities, treatment programs, and health officials has worked out well enough in Seattle.

Or if we would allow our fellow human beings something better than tents in the rainy season,  imagine ten or twenty better-operated ‘Dignity Villages,’ each with small hut-like homes, a common pavilion, and the basics of water supply, latrines, and trash receptacles at minimum. This can be so very inexpensive.

Allowing people to do so on designated lands, in do-no-harm ways, is not a new idea.  It is in our instincts to live so during times of economic depression.  Our local governments simply need to begin better facilitating this – out of economic necessity, if not out of respect for the basic human needs of our poorer neighbors.

What those experiencing  homelessness need is the same as what each reader needs:  a safe place of privacy where they can sleep, tend to their health, enjoy down-time,  and store a few things while they figure out where to find work in this declining economy.

Each person living out-of-doors needs immediate relief from the ongoing stress of constantly being told to “move on.”  To believe otherwise is cruel. Therefore each a person should at least have a right to pitch or build their own simple shelter – if in the locally prescribed “proper place, time, and manner,” as regulated by local governments.

Shelter should be a right in every U.S. city!

In California the debate has gone on and on, but they have a more realistic grasp of the real financial numbers coming down already there, and they have in many ways facilitated temporary shelter programs and tent cities.


U.N. Shelter Rights

Recognized or not,

shelter IS a human right.

Whether or not our local leaders or police recognize this, other authorities say this is so. Here in progressive Portland we understand that shelter should be a human right. Let them build their own, at least – in designated places!

Some would say that the our homeless neighbors  are “capitalism’s refugees.” Some well-traveled folks I know say that we are creating a sort of “caste system” here with our shaming and our laws against poverty.

Even the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees would have to give Portland low marks for its criminal treatment of the homeless, and especially for the taking of their few possessions in ‘sweeps’ by both police and private security services acting under the color of law.


Portland’s Only Legal Encampment, Population 55 (out of 10,000)

Here in Portland, out near NE 33rd and Marine Drive — sited between a huge compost operation and a prison, right at the end of the #73 bus line — is Portland’s only legal encampment on public lands.  Dignity Village began as a protest encampment, and they have moved a few times before landing with City approval at their current site. D.Village is now a non-profit with a population of just under sixty people, and its population is currently capped at sixty.

Dignity Village practices ‘self-government.’ At last check, their Council meets every Wednesday at 6 pm, on site. The Village requires residents to pay $20 per month to help keep up the Village’s insurance, and they require each resident to perform a minimum of ten hours of work weekly – to maintain their site and its common spaces. Currently D. Village also manages operation of three micro-businesses: a City-approved food vending cart (operated at Parks, events), a small garden nursery business, and an “e-bay store” on site — all of which help them toward self-support.Dignity Village, building of low cost homes

They are well short of the ability to maintain themselves without ongoing donations or grants, however. That community has gone through a lot, and offers many lessons both about how and how not to develop. Some corruption is still reported among the leadership there. But like any community practicing self-government, things tend to get better with more participation. There is enthusiasm there at their council meetings.

Dignity Village, as imperfect as it may be, is helpful as a transitional housing site for Portland, and residents enjoy some dignified housing and some excellent programs there. This is a much less expensive way to house homeless people than the ‘permanent supported’ single-resident-occupancy housing approach. More poepl who are now on the streets could be housed if there were many more D.V.-like projects.

See their site at,

There are, however, still well over nine thousand people among us locally with no place to find legal shelter within the City!

Many without housing wish they could get into Dignity Village, but “getting in” there is not easy. Insiders there report having to turn away campers on a regular basis.

In the coming years, Portland will surely need more than one ‘temporary encampment’ to care for its growing homeless population.

This will require planning and ongoing cooperation by our local governments and  charitable service providers. Thousands of additional shelter spaces are immediately  needed. The City would also do well to make sure that new leadership at such encampments are clean and sober. Addiction problems at Dignity Village are persistent  and serious.

What’s Working Elsewhere?

Check out Seattle’s ‘SHARE/ WHEEL’

SHARE/ WHEEL is an organization made up primarily of homeless (and formerly homeless) individuals, which advocates for their needs. They have helped in the development of each of Seattle’s tent cities, and sees to it that additional shelter is available to people during the worst of weather. See,

Legalizing some camping in Portland will surely help the overall crisis here, as it has elsewhere in the U.S. With a large number of otherwise unsheltered people camping legally outdoors, then the various well-established shelter programs now operating in the City could more easily give ‘indoors-with-services’ priorities to women with children and to people with disabilities.  Increasingly, this is a triage situation here in Portland

WHERE to locate the ‘tent cities’ or other emergency encampments in the Portland metro?

Help Wanted

Keep in mind that many of the services offered for poor people, as well as possible jobs, tend to be available mostly in the City.

Therefore,  it would be best that those un-sheltered people who are working in the City (or who are actively looking for work in the City) should be allowed to stay in temporary shelter or encampments near to the City Center.

Real Dignity Comes Through Self-Support!

It would be inefficient, and not as kind, of our government if they would allow homeless encampments only at the far outskirts of Portland.

In the long run, ‘tent cites’ are not a solution. But if managed properly, they can offer immediate, temporary relief to thousands of otherwise un-sheltered people who are too often unable to get a good, safe night’s sleep.

seattle homeless build tent city

Seattle homeless building a tent city - photo by C. Blethen, 'The Seattle Times'

Encampments for the homeless already function well in many U.S. cities. Even when located near residential areas in Seattle, it has been shown there that crime has not gone up in those neighborhoods near the homeless encampments.

The residents themselves of Seattle’s tent cites have long practiced a highly cooperative ‘self policing’ method – which, in cooperation with area  police, effectively excludes active violent criminals  from THEIR tent community.  With the help of local treatment programs and community oversight/support, this has worked well in many cities. It can be a way to quickly give the dignity of shelter to many people otherwise without options.

Poverty is NOT a crime!

Temporary ‘tent cities’ are being permitted in many large cities already, so why is it that Portland’s Laws still have us shewing away our huddled masses, knowing full well most of them have nowhere good to go?

We should not be ashamed of poverty here in Portland. It is everywhere growing in the U.S. – and you know that there but for the grace of God go any of us. It’s good karma to help the homeless – especially if you help them to help themselves in some well-governed way.

We believe that each responsible, housed and employed citizen should be thinking about lowering their personal consumption levels anyway, given the times we’re in. Since simplicity is good, then perhaps so is poverty!

In any case, economic development locally can be greatly enhanced by developing efficient ‘tent cities with services’ — as one more tool in the toolkit of our evolving local “social safety net.”

Since thousands are without shelter among us locally, we would do well to allow encampments here in Portlandbefore the rainy season begins!

We must demand that our local leaders take the lead in this.

We must not let them tout past accomplishments while they continue to coast along with the high-dollar-low-results status quo.

Time is not on our side.

The scale of the crisis is too large for private and charitable intervention alone.

Let’s have faith in our abilities as citizens to advance this serious discussion.

Please write or call your local leaders.

We should also be talking with our County and State leaders as well — throughout the Metro region.  For contact info. re/ our elected officials, and ideas about how to talk with local leaders , see this Blog’s  ‘Recent Letters’ page, or go to for the names and addresses of Portland City officials.

Peace & thanks for reading.

— The G.R.O.W.S. Committee
(for Green Residential Oregon Work Sites)



One Response to “Need for Temporary Shelter Spaces Growing Fast in Portland; Rainy Season 60 Days Ahead; Public Health Emergency Possible”

  1. We are from Denver, and were in Portland recently to visit our niece at P.S.U. I must say we are saddened to learn about this “no camping” law of yours. In the four short days that we were in town, we talked with several of your homeless citizens and heard stories of police and private security forces taking their tents. The homeless can not afford new tents let alone lawyers. Your city would do well to get rid of its “no camping law,” or at least to allow for more than one of these Dignity Camps you have there. The amount of resentment and suffering that your current policy is cultivating there is needless and disgraceful.

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