Connecting with Dignity

Oregon congregation learns about homeless community, vows to help

July 7, 2009

Dignity Village resident Joe Palinkas gives members of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church a tour of the village.

Dignity Village resident Joe Palinkas gives members of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church a tour of the village. —Jim Mattis

LOUISVILLE

 In March, the congregation at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, in West Linn, OR, met a resident of Dignity Village, beginning a new partnership and learning a lot along the way.

Dignity Village is a cooperative venture among the city of Portland, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Self-Development of People and a group of homeless folks. It seeks to create a cohesive, self-determining community with temporary shelters.

In his presentation at Emmanuel, resident Joe Palinkas spoke about his path to Dignity Village. Once a master floor and counter cover maker, Palinkas was no longer able to support himself after becoming legally blind.

Palinkas was introduced to the church by Susan Freedheld, a member of the congregation and the National Committee for SDOP.

Joe touched hearts at Emmanuel and moved the congregation to learn more about helping make an urgent dream of Dignity Village a reality. Residents had designed a plan for a four-unit sewage and hygiene facility for the village. Three units are to house one flush toilet, sink and shower each, and one is to house laundry equipment. Each unit will cost about $7,000 to build.

Emmanuel’s session approved a plan to raise funds for half of a unit, and encouraged other congregations to join the effort.

But even before the session’s decision, one couple gived money for a washer and dryer, and another arranged with his dentist to provide dental surgery and a full set of dentures for Palinkas. Another member has kicked off a sanitation-hygiene unit project, with plans to give building materials for one unit. That project will honor the group’s mission of working with recycled materials.

At the beginning of May, more than 20 folks from Emmanuel visited Dignity Village to learn firsthand about life there. Under the first sunny skies of spring, the group found the out-of-the-way site: on an asphalt parking lot past the airport, under a busy take-off and landing route and next to a correctional facility.

“It is far more than a campsite for the homeless … Not only are there by-laws and basic rules for life in the village, but there are also poets and storytellers who record the lives and hopes of its residents,” said Emmanuel co-pastor the Rev. Paul Quackenbush.

That sense of community was evident to member Judy Long, who noted the upbeat attitudes and hopefulness of many of the residents.

“Instead of the downtrodden, eyes-averted, resigned affect usually associated with homeless people, I saw determination, intelligence, humor and comradery,” she said. “People made direct eye contact as they passed us, giving a friendly wave. There was a sense of purpose to their activities, with a goal to improve their lives.”

That afternoon, the visitors from Emmanuel saw that many of the 60 residents were at home but involved in helping themselves and each other.

“We saw people working on the huts, doing security duty, sawing lumber, chopping wood, making craft items. There were signs of caring for and planting veggies in raised beds and preparations for a yard sale. Plainly, these folk care for the area by sweeping the asphalt so it is clean and safe and keeping gifted and used items in designated places,” said member Jim Mattis. “With used and limited resources, they show how they can and do help themselves.”

Despite the lack of the most basic necessities, residents have found ways to express themselves and add personal touches to their temporary spaces.

“The individuality of the homes impressed me. Joe told a story of one man who thought his girlfriend was such a princess he built their home like a castle, and someone found a gargoyle to put on the top of it,” said member Gwen Luhta, adding that she could see the need for the sewage and hygiene facility. “Lack of adequate showers, a laundry facility and toilets left much to be desired.”

Jim Long, another visitor, summed up his experience and pointed out how much we receive when we reach out to help.

“I was reminded that I have way too much ‘stuff,’ and so was challenged to consider how much more I could share. I decided to write a check when we ended the tour in support of this valuable resource in our area. In giving money I know I'm taking the simplest response to the challenge, but it is a beginning, and it seems like our church plans to continue this new relationship with Dignity Village, not just because we have enough and so can help them, but also, because we have so much to receive as well,” he said.

“Dignity Village challenges our priorities and lifestyles, and that is as important for our own reclaiming of our higher selves as Dignity Village is important for its residents’ reclamation of self and hope.”

Fran Royston is a member of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in West Linn, OR.

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