by Duncan Campbell - The Guardian
Pirate Steve surveyed the eccentric collection of shacks and cabins that is now his home on the outskirts of Portland. "Quite frankly, being here has been the best period of my life," he said. "Not the time when I had my sports car, my condo and my jewellery."
Known as Pirate Steve because of the patch which covers an eye seriously injured in a car accident, the former
laser optics technician is one of more than 60 homeless people who have turned an uninviting patch of land near the city's airport into a model for living.
Dignity Village, as the ragtag collection of dwellings is known, has its own council, legislature and bylaws, and is now in the process of creating its own judiciary.
Urban phenomenon On Wednesday, the village residents presented Portland's city council with proposals for their future,
requesting that they be allowed to stay on the site for a further 10 years.
With homelessness across the United States a growing urban phenomenon, the residents of the village believe that what
they have accomplished over the past two years could act as a model for others who sleep beneath flyovers and in shopfronts.
The council is now considering their application. Born in France into a military family and brought up in San
Antonio, Texas, Pirate Steve, 46, is not untypical of the village's residents.
Many have had decent jobs but hit hard times as a result of injury or illness, found themselves unable to pay
their bills, and ended up on the street.
"I lived in a suburb of Fort Worth," said Gary Spry, an electrician and father of four who lives in the village with his
wife and youngest daughter.
"If someone had said to me I would have ended up homeless, I would have laughed in their face."
But an accident, followed by a series of operations not fully covered by his work insurance, meant Spry had to abandon his house.
At the village, he has helped to set up a windmill for electricity, part of the encampment's ecologically sound
philosophy. His daughter, the youngest village resident at 17, attends the local high school.
Dignity Village presents a snapshot of American homelessness which, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, has increased by 14% in the past two years, with 3.5 million people now classified as homeless.
Some two-thirds of the inhabitants of the village are male. Residents range in age from 17 to 72.
They include many people with professional qualifications, of all races and religions.
There are a number of Vietnam veterans, including four or five ex-marines, and two children have been conceived there. There are tomatoes, potatoes and squash growing on the land, which adjoins a local prison.
An elected council meets weekly, and there are mandatory fortnightly meetings for all residents, who each have to give 10 hours of their time a week to the village's chores.
The rules are straightforward and enforced by threat of banishment, either temporary or permanent: no violence and respect for others- which means not playing music too loudly or having noisy arguments.
"We get along like a big family," said Tim McCarthy, who is the village treasurer and lives in a rambling abode through which rat-catching cats wander. "We have our tiffs and bouts like any big family, but we look after each other." Most of the neighbours were sympathetic, he said, except for one, "who wouldn't be happy if Dignity Village was in the Mojave desert."
McCarthy, one of a family of eight from Ohio, worked for more than seven years for a local convenience store before losing his job. Suffering from emphysema and other illnesses requiring expensive medication, he had to cash in his life insurance policies, and ran out of money.
A voracious reader of westerns and sci-fi, he showed off the village library, a converted old airport bus donated by Lee
Larson, a retired local businessman who has become one of the village's advocates and benefactors. A young woman nearby was giving a friend an open-air haircut.
The villagers have their own theories as to why homelessness has grown in the US over the past two decades.
The easy availability of credit was to blame, said Gaye Reyes, who had "worked for a company that didn't treat people well", and after becoming ill had become homeless. She thought that credit had allowed people to get into debt in ways that had not been possible 20 years ago.
"We have allowed Madison Avenue to tell us how we should smell and what we should look like and what kind of house we should live in," said Reyes, as an amiable dog called Turtle - "three-quarters wolf" - leaned over her shoulder. When people were unable to pay their bills they ended up on the street.
Raw capitalism "The cost of living is now so damn high. There are people working here who can't afford to get an apartment," said Reyes. Employers were unwilling to give jobs to those who had no home address: "I've worked in human resources, and I wouldn't hire you with a backpack on your back."
Jack Tafari, the dreadlocked, 57-year-old chairman of the village council, who has also lived in London and Amsterdam, blamed "economic globalisation ... I'm aware it's a bit of a buzzword, but you are getting a wider gap between the rich and poor and jobs are going elsewhere.
"It's not ameliorated by capitalism, which is a bit more raw here. You have different rights here - rights to carry a gun and
shoot off your mouth, but not a right to your health."
The authorities in Portland, a comparatively liberal city, have not been unsympathetic. The mayor, Vera Katz, who supported the initial lease of land to the village, says the city takes the issue of homelessness very seriously.
"As mayor, I can't turn my back and walk away from the fact that we have people who don't have shelter," she said.
The issue that the council now had to decide, said Ms Katz, was whether to extend the lease.
She said the village had shown how homes could be constructed using very inexpensive materials and had demonstrated that there were other ways of tackling homelessness apart from the traditional ones.
Mr Larson, the donor of the library bus, said yesterday: "Dignity Village is just an incredible success story. I think you could see several Dignity Villages in different parts of the country for people who have difficulty dealing with the authorities or with the shelters, which you have to leave during the day.
"I am very impressed with what they have done out of nothing, and I think it is replicable."
With a damp Oregon winter - fast approaching, Jack Tafari and the other villagers are hopeful that they will be able to prove to the world that there is life beyond the underpass.
"We are the grist escaping from the mill," he said.