Monday, September 14, 2009

Homelessness and safety: The story of Dignity Village

Can we have safe and vital cities without tackling homelessness? For some, perhaps. Others, no.

Homelessness plagues Houston, Louisville, Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver and so many other recession-prone places. The re-emergence of large tent cities is a foreboding sign. Homeless folk dwell underneath the cement highway bridges we cross everyday to work, hundreds and thousands of people living out their lives.

Then along comes a story that brings hope for a new way forward.

Enter: Dignity Village in Portland, part of the City Repair movement. The New York Times says "Dignity Village is no sqatter's camp". The UK Guardian newspaper claims "America's homeless become new small-town pioneers".

A few years ago some Portland activists convinced homeless tent dwellers to move to a better spot, taught them how to use recycled material to construct shelters, and helped them do exactly that. They planned a village with a garden, "community center", and art. They gradually began to work together to build a self-governing community with rules, basic sanitation, and a measure of safety. In spite of a turbulent sea of local controversy somehow they found an island of, well, dignity.

Sometimes it is the simple solutions that work best.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Steve Woolrich said...

Great feature on this important subject Greg. There are certainly many important pieces to solving this puzzle but respect and dignity are certainly at the top of the list.

I commented recently about our Social Marketing campaign in Red Deer, Alberta, regarding housing, homelessness and addictions. It's an overarching campaign with broad messaging regarding these subjects. Local non-profits will be provided with education on the development of their own Social Marketing initiative and up to six community groups will have a campaign that is tied to the broader message - We need to change our perception about vulnerable people, such as those who are homeless or living with harmful substance use/addictions.

For many communities, it's high time a commitment was made to extending our hands and being more inclusive, helping those who really need our help. It's about mutual respect and honestly making an effort to not only change our perception, but our behavior towards these members of our community.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) is being embraced by many communities, including our own. An important part of this process is interviewing members of our community, including vulnerable populations. If the use of CPTED is to be truly effective, these people can help provide great insight for practitioners such as myself.

For those CPTED practitioners who are only looking at the physical environment, they'd better wake up and realize that without a social component, their solutions are not sustainable. Public spaces equal social interaction and we must learn to be more inclusive.

GSaville said...

Very insightful Steve. I agree with your view of CPTED, but sadly many do not. They still view traditional 1st Generation CPTED as THE best, if not only, way to move forward. They pay lip service to the social and say they "do" it, but when you look closely it is little more than smoke and mirrors.

Worse, some see CPTED from the narrow lens of architecture, engineering, lighting, and things physical. When they hear "social", the relegate those tasks to someone else in another silo.

Of course physical places create crime opportunities! Duh. But it is the vulnerable populations, homelessness, inclusiveness, addiction and the social fabric that truly sustain our efforts over the long term. Thanks for reminding us!