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A brief history of the Out of the Doorways campaign, part one

“Until lions have their history, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” – Professor Frederick W. Hickling

The Homeless Front was a company of equals, considered the best we Portland homeless had to capture our first piece of public land on a cold December day. Not all of us are pictured here -- Grandma Jada might have been sleeping in her teepee when this photo was taken. We were radical and militant fi true. We were old and young; black, white, and red; Rasta, Muslim, Christian, and Atheist. We were also freezing cold and fed up with the way things were. It was the first year of a new millennium and we wanted to begin a new beginning.

We were the frontline soldiers of the Out of the Doorways campaign. The housed side of our campaign had urged us to wait until we'd finished writing our mission statement before taking our first site but we already knew our mission. The Street Roots story said "Out of the Doorways by Christmas." We were coming in from the cold.

“On December 16th of the year 2000, a group of eight homeless men and women pitched five tents on public land and Camp Dignity, later to become Dignity Village, was born. We came out of the doorways of Portland's streets, out from under the bridges, from under the bushes of public parks, we came openly with nothing and no longer a need to hide as Portland's inhumane and Draconian camping ban had just been overturned on two constitutional grounds. We came armed with a vision of a better future for ourselves and for all of Portland, a vision of a green, sustainable urban village where we can live in peace and improve not only the condition of our own lives but the quality of life in Portland in general. We came in from the cold of a December day and we refuse to go back to the way things were.” (DV Archive http://www.dignityvillage.org)

Mek I fling a likkle back-story inna de mix. My name is Jack Tafari and I came to Portland via Salem, Oregon, in February 2000. I‘d recently come to live inna ‘merica from England, the island of my birth. My daughter, who me love dearly, lives in Vancouver in nearby British Columbia.

In Salem I was unfairly dismissed from a new job that had taken over a month to find. By the time my dismissal was overturned thus allowing my claim for the unemployment insurance owed for over a year’s worth of eighty-hour weeks worked a state away, I was quite homeless, living inna doorway in Portland.

In Portland I found work vending the new street paper on the scene. Street Roots, “the paper for those who can’t afford free speech,” provided tremendous opportunities for its homeless vendors, not least of which was a warm and welcoming office with hot coffee priced at what each vendor could afford to pay. Street Roots also provided workshops in poetry, creative writing, taught basic journalistic skills and even welcomed contributions from vendors, many of whom live in the most wretched and appalling of conditions.

I began writing for Street Roots at first as a way to try to improve my paper sales, writing from my own experience about what was happening around me. My first dub poem “Introdukshan” saw ink there early in the New Year. I wrote about mi bredrin Winston who I met in Seattle a couple of years before and about HIM Haile Selassie I’s visit to Jamaica in 1966. Other poems and stories followed.

Street Roots was a monthly paper in that time and I required more work. Work can be hard to find when a man is apparently homeless inna ‘merica due to prejudice and public perception. Reliability for work is also problematic when a man has nowhere to live. My solution was to find a voluntary job as a cleaner at the mainly volunteer-run radio station KBOO 90.7 FM where mi bredrin Ras Danny hosts the popular late night “Higher Reasoning Reggae Time.” I also found weekend work at Saturday Market due to the kindness of a woman I call Boss Lady.

Street Roots had just issued this writer a press pass as a way of opening doors. The first door it opened was one that led to an interview with Winston Foster, the one Yellowman. That man’s complexion appears to have run out of melanin and is similar to my own. I asked him about this and mentioned my own hesitation calling myself a Rastaman on account of it. Yellowman replied that there is no racial barrier in INI faith. “Fram yuh is a Rasta yuh is a Rasta, seen?”

By August I’d been appointed delegate to the National Homeless Convention which took place that year at Los Angeles' fabled Dome Village, not far from the Staples Center where the Democratic National Convention was also taking place. My first lead story “National Homeless Convention gets off with a bang” graced Street Roots’ front page in September, 2000. That month I’d also been made submissions editor and loved watching the paper’s circulation grow with each monthly issue. I also wrote my first editorial, “We Need a Tent City.”

As I’d used the editorial we in the title of the piece, I took my editorial to the Street Roots board on 16 September and asked the board’s endorsement for a campaign for a sanctioned tent city for Portland’s homeless population. At the time there were about 2,500 homeless adults living in Portland and 1,500 homeless children. In the coldest months when even the floor space in the Rescue Mission was filled with bodies, there were only about 600 emergency spaces for people. The Street Roots board put my request to a vote and it was unanimously passed.

Then on 27 September something amazing happened – Portland’s nineteen-year-old camping ban was overturned in Judge Gallagher’s county courtroom. The court ruled that it was unfair to discriminate against homeless people on the basis of our status and condition. It also ruled that the practice of using the police to chase us from place to place not even allowing us to stop to prepare a meal or get a night’s sleep constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” The ruling immediately galvanized Portland’s homeless community. History had thrown down a gauntlet and Portland’s homeless picked up that gauntlet and rose to meet history's challenge.

Street Roots immediately went into high gear. Remona Cowles wrote October’s front page lead story that issue about the overturning of the ban. My editorial “We Need a Tent City” saw ink as did the news item “Parking lot sleeps eighteen” and the refrain of the frankly agitational dub poem “Housin’ Prablem” went

“Ah'm a tellin' yuh right now it is a hell of a ting
when yuh poor an' yuh Rasta fi get some housing
But it doan just Rasta yuh mus' andastand
plenty people got a housin' prablem inna Portland”

That poem even got Street Roots a visit from a concerned Central City who got a name check in the poem’s third verse.

At this point it should be explained that homelessness, like most things in the US, is commoditized, that concepts like “social housing” are alien to the American mindscape. Central City Concern, for example, had a monopoly on the older residential hotels in Portland, what in an earlier age would have been called “flop houses,” and was probably more concerned about the upkeep of its property and its bottom line than it is about the quality of life of the poor who live there. Transitional Projects was meant to transition homeless people through homelessness within ninety days into affordable housing that even the poor can afford to rent. Homeless people are frequently at risk of becoming grist for a mill that keeps them on bunk beds in single-sex dorms for three months before recycling them back onto the streets. At the turn of the millennium there was more grist than the mill was able to process.

Street Roots held the first tent city campaign meeting early in October at the newspaper office on Morrison Street but the office overflowed with people and the meeting spilled out into the street. The campaign needed a larger venue for its weekly meetings and subsequent ones were held at the Martial Arts Gallery in Old Town. The meetings were often tumultuous and attracted considerable support from the wider community.

We began studying the literature about tent cities available through the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, DC, learning the histories of tent cities and their purposes, learning of their successes and the reasons they failed when they did. We also began looking for possible sites. Fellow vendor, poet and sometime next doorway neighbor Mike Broderick and I comprised the campaign’s first site selection team.

One site we especially loved was known as the Field of Dreams, located off the SW Naito Parkway next to the International School. Homeless people had camped in the bushes there for years and the site had spectacular views of the Willamette River with its bridges that many of us slept under. The weather was just beginning to turn and the field was covered with daisies and Queen Anne’s lace. There was also a considerable amount of trash and debris left over from human habitation. Mike and I reasoned that site clean up would be pretty straightforward and that it would be better if the school children saw their neighbors doing something positive rather than merely hiding from the police trying to get a night’s sleep.

In October my street son Fieldmouse set up an email account for I to facilitate the campaign’s communication. That month the mighty Jamaican poet Mutabaruka trod barefoot along Portland’s Burnside skid row just as this Rasta was beginning to sharpen his interview skills. Using a tape recorder to capture the poet’s words “Mutabaruka speaks to Portland’s homeless” inspired and gave confidence to our campaign. The November issue’s “Out of the Doorways by Christmas” also gave our campaign a name.

As the Out of the Doorways campaign rolled along through the month of November it attracted wide support and notable supporters. There were many students from Lewis and Clark College of course; Mike Broderick was a popular Street Roots vendor on the L&C campus and the students’ tent drive there got us our first tents. There was the notable community organizer John Hubbird who had worked around the car camping issue in Eugene, Oregon. There was Mark Lakeman, visionary architect of the City Repair project, whose renditions of the green, sustainable village we could live in inspired and delighted. Mark had been to Africa where he in turn was inspired by the architecture he found there, how the constructive materials used simply went back to Mother Earth once a building’s utility had ended. It is from City Repair and its visionary architect that Dignity Village acquired its green, eco-friendly ethos.

Seven days after the camping ban had been overturned John Reese, a veteran who lost a leg in Viet Nam, was scheduled for the amputation of his remaining leg on account of diabetes at the VA Hospital. On 8 October John was deemed well enough to go home to recuperate, the only problem being that John was living on scraps of filthy cardboard in the oil-stained parking spaces beneath the Broadway Bridge.

I knew John from a parking lot where eighteen of us had lived during the month of August and in December moved from my Morrison Street doorway to a parking space adjoining John’s under the Broadway Bridge.

We parked John’s new wheelchair at the foot of the painted line between our spaces to keep from getting run over while we slept. John trusted me to get him to campaign meetings in his new chair where he simply told the story of what had happened. John’s story confirmed in the hearts of those who heard the need for what we proposed to create.

December’s issue of Street Roots featured the polemic “The Future” with its clear statement of intent:

“Very soon now we shall pitch the tents of Joshua on various sites around the city. We are blessed here in Oregon with ample public land and so there is space if not a place for us to go. We must build that place for ourselves. Know that the kernel of the future lies buried in the present. It is important for the future how we set up and govern our camps now. We have many friends. There are those who would fight against we, workers of iniquity who profit from our situation and would rather things remain the way they are. It is time to be of good courage, brothers and sisters. We may wander for a time in the wilderness. But as surely as night follows day, one day we shall reach a land flowing with milk and honey.”

The December issue also featured a blueprint and the architectural rendition of a beautiful village on one of our selection team’s sites, a vacant lot where the police horse barns once stood. The City roped off the site after this revelation and designated its use a temporary parking lot. The Homeless Front knew it was in for a fight but as Professor Hickling says, “If yuh nah get a fight, yuh doan do it right.”

Soldier JP Cupp put a motion on the floor at the campaign’s last meeting at the Martial Arts Gallery that as it was the soldiers who would bear the brunt of any possible assault at the hands of the Portland police, it was the soldiers who should decide the timing of our first occupation. A show of hands decided the matter of when our action would begin and a date was decided.

On a bitterly cold December night, the soldiers of the Homeless Front bivouacked in the Martial Arts Gallery in downtown Portland in preparation for the morning’s occupation. During the night we opened the doors of the gallery to other homeless people relegated to sleeping on the cold downtown streets. The following morning on Saturday, 16 December 2000 the Homeless Front occupied its first piece of public land in the name of Dignity.

by Jack Tafari