Beanpole-thin with meek brown eyes and a yen for thrift-store attire—ragged cutoffs, grungy T-shirt, and striped tube socks pulled up almost to his knees—Bryan Pollard does not look like a diplomat. That appellation seems improbable, certainly, whenever Pollard is wheeling his bicycle, the one with the banana seat and the sissy bar, along the streets near his home in Portland, Oregon.
But when Pollard rides that vintage bike into an industrial neighborhood and then under a hissing freeway on-ramp, his savvy becomes suddenly manifest. There, on a state-owned one-acre swath of grass, is the growing homeless encampment Pollard helped launch last December, known as Dignity Village. Fifty-five nylon tents and two portable toilets are clustered around the ramp’s concrete pillars. A central kitchen dishes out burritos and pizza, and games of badminton and touch football rage on the lawn.
Dignity Village is a rare bird in a nation where more than two-thirds of all major cities, including Portland, now prohibit any kind of urban camping. It’s alive and flourishing thanks largely to Pollard, a onetime commercial photographer who works full-time at a Portland shelter and also volunteers as editor of street roots, a monthly newspaper focused on homelessness.
Last fall, the soft-spoken 32-year-old decided that Portland, where 2,500 people sleep on the streets every night, according to city figures, needed “an alternative to shelters and their rules, a place where homeless people can have autonomy and—God forbid—a little happiness until they’re stable enough to find housing.” Pollard did some research and suggested to his homeless friends that, historically, camps have failed for these reasons: lack of sanitation, unsightliness, and drug and alcohol problems. The homeless vowed to keep Dignity Village clean, and Pollard started to work the phones. He called politicians and fellow activists and stressed that the camp was “not just a bunch of shiftless people looking for a place to crash. It’s a village, a place where people live, work, and share.”
The message hasn’t resonated with everyone. Already, several neighborhoods have pressured Dignity Village to move along (the camp is now at its fifth location), and some homeless advocates emphasize that its residents need permanent housing rather than tents.
But Dignity Village has also drawn glowing local media coverage. Several Portland ministers have championed it, and City Commissioner Erik Sten, who oversees the Bureau of Housing, supports the camp—in part, he says, because he is impressed with Pollard’s manner. “The camp is radical; it’s a direct action,” notes Sten. “But Bryan isn’t confrontational. He’s very unassuming and clear. You instinctively believe in him.”
Still, Dignity Village’s future is tenuous. The state of Oregon has given the camp a July 1 deadline to move from its location under the freeway. And this fall, the state appeals court is slated to rule on a legal victory the homeless won this spring—a Multnomah County court ruling that declared Portland’s camping ban unconstitutional.
Whatever the outcome, Pollard is determined to keep up his low-key advocacy. In two years at street roots, he has made a once-shrill paper inviting and informative, pushed its circulation from 2,000 to 16,000, and helped publish five books written by street people.
“I guess I feel like I just need to work for my brother man,” Pollard shrugs. “You can talk about saving the animals or Mother Earth, but to me this is the starting point: We have to respect other humans and treat them with compassion.”