We’re pleased to post playwright Helen Hill’s magnificent short story “THEATER OF THE UNDETERRED” which reads like a play within a play. The story’s set in Dignity Village and namechecks the original Out of the Doorways campaign that led to the birth of the Village.
THEATER OF THE UNDETERRED
On my way out of town, I veer off at the Hope Chest Thrift Store; suddenly what I’m wearing feels hopelessly wrong. I grab the first $2 dress that seems to say: “sincere and humble playwright” Perfect, except for the shiny faux gold buttons. Too upscale resale. I buy it anyway, and realize I’m in way over my head even as I hand over the two bucks, realize I’m rushing headlong into a void in a polyester dress that smells like a stranger’s perfume.
God I’m nervous. A bundle of copies of the new play are on the seat beside me, fresh and throbbing like a raw, chapped newborn, tentative and untried. Going public with new work always feels like stretching my neck across a chopping block, but to top it off, the destination of this new work is an infamous village full of strangers whose lives I can’t begin to imagine.
Almost there, I think. But where is this place? I’m lost in the outback. Lonely industrial warehouses scattered among peeling farmhouses, weed-choked idle acres and the whine of converging freeways in the distance; I’m out where God lost his shoes, it seems. Where else would the city of Portland put an acre full of homeless people?
I spy a low patchwork of tar-paper shacks and tents like a jumble of hodge-podge hives, hard to see from the road, but I recognize the yellow plastic “Dignity Village” flag atop a tower of angled sticks, snapping in a chilly wind funnelling down the Columbia Gorge.
I’ve seen pictures on the web, on television and in the newspapers, but this is not what I expected. I imagined the Village would be showcased like the paradigm busting oddity that it is: an autonomous homeless encampment run entirely by the 65 plus or minus residents and granted tenuous status to exist independently (from day to day) by their uneasy landlords; the City of Portland. It’s three years old, and has been written about in the NY Times, the Italian press, and provided a model for homeless camps in Montreal, Japan, Seattle, LA, London and Denver. With all that, it’s easy to miss.
Several years ago, when a new law banning camping within city limits was passed, Portland’s growing homeless population found themselves prodded, poked, tasered, booked, fined and jailed for the crime of having nowhere to sleep. Pockets of poor were swept daily from encampments under bridges, bushes, inside doorways and off dead end streets in the dead of night and told to move along, move along. But there was nowhere to move along to. The shelters were bursting, the social workers exhausted. Long lines began forming at 9 every morning for a chance at a bed 12 hours later and a few hours sleep in a room often full of contagious, coughing people. Couples were split, possessions unsecured, no pets allowed.
The cold winter of 2001 found a core group of homeless fighting back in an effective and original way. With planning and staging, the “Out of the Doorways Campaign” was born; a series of agit-prop actions designed to call attention to the lack of affordable housing and the plight of the homeless. The activists conducted stately parades through downtown Portland with loaded shopping carts, carrying signs and chanting. They camped in strategic places such as open greenways beside upscale housing developments. Wealthy condo owners opened their floor to ceiling curtains to enjoy an espresso in the morning sun and found themselves face to face with tent cities that had bloomed overnight. Newspapers were full of articles about a moveable band of humans, undeterred, with a simple message: “We are a river of people with nowhere to go, and the river is growing wider every day”
Along the way, they acquired a name for their vision of a place to rest and arrest the downward spiral. Dignity Village; a Zion in the heart and mind where fruit trees grow, birds sing, and it’s safe to sleep at night. It took a year, but a red-faced city finally caved to pressure and allowed them to occupy a near-acre in a thinly populated area out by the airport. The vision was realized, though no one ever guessed Zion would look like a wind-swept, asphalt-covered leaf composting yard surrounded by a heavy chain link fence.
I park across from the Village’s neighbor to the south, a sprawling county corrections unit with a twenty foot high razor wire fence, grab the stack of plays and duck as a pair of F15 fighter jets screams into the sky from the nearby National Guard runway. Perfect placement on the part of a city still intent on pressing these independent undeterred into a mold. On either side of them and in the sky above are constant reminders of the power and authority of the military industrial complex, of the system they’ve been displaced out of, are bucking.
There’s a sluggish green slough channeled beside the entrance, (full of jet de-icer run-off and two headed ducks deformed by chemicals, I later learn), leading to what appears to be a small plywood security shack. I see an American flag in the window and a little Scotty guard dog yapping, tail wagging furiously, pulling tight on his chain to greet me. His loopy fur sprouts over button eyes, and I reach down to clear his view of the world. I have to laugh, he looks like he’s about to come apart, he’s so happy, and for a moment I forget how scared I am to cross this unknown threshold, and in that moment, a beaming man in a fluoro-orange vest emerges from the shack with a clipboard and I think this security post seems more like a fragile rib cage protecting a heart.
“Hi! Welcome to Dignity Village!”
“I’m here about a play. I called last week.”
“Oh right, we talked about that at the meeting last night. I’m Ben.”