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November 30th, 2011 12:01 am CASEY JARMAN | Cover Story

Progress Without Pepper Spray

How a burger baron, four indie rockers, a bleeding-heart Muslim and a group of trash tour guides are fighting for the 99%.

The problem: Portland’s widespread homelessness.
A solution: Clean, safe camps for the city’s homeless.
The solver: Ibrahim Mubarak, board member, Right 2 Survive.

IMAGE: Inger Klekacz

The first thing you notice about Right 2 Dream Too—especially if you spent any time at Occupy Portland’s encampment—is just how tidy the place is. About 80 people stay here each night, in a half-block camp on the northeast corner of Northwest 4th Avenue and Burnside Street that spent its summer as an empty gravel parking lot. Now it’s basically a high-functioning commune run by those without housing. Tents of all shapes and sizes sit in neat rows on wooden pallets. Perhaps unexpectedly, a camp that is self-monitored by Portland’s homeless is far safer and cleaner than the political protest that famously attracted homeless campers.

When Ibrahim Mubarak, who described himself over the phone as “the Muslim,” appears on the street in front of Dream Too—where security plays pop songs from a cheap FM radio—his vague description makes more sense. The 55-year-old’s eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and his face is partially covered by a white headscarf that falls over a knit kufi skull cap. Over his shirt he wears a flowing, hand-stitched gray shawl. He offers a handshake and a warm smile that reveals a chipped silver front tooth.

Mubarak and the other volunteers who keep this place running don’t refer to the lot as a camp—Portland has strict, controversial anti-camping laws—but rather a “rest area” available for overnight stays. Right 2 Dream Too’s guests adhere to a strict anti-drug and -alcohol policy while also contributing to the upkeep of the camp. Quiet time starts at 10 pm. These are decisions made to keep the space operating smoothly and to minimize criticism from local businesses and the City of Portland. Nevertheless, it would be hard to argue that Dream Too is legal under city law.

It’s also hard to argue that Dream Too isn’t sorely needed. The Portland Housing Bureau counted 2,727 homeless living on the streets or in emergency shelters in January, with another 1,928 in transitional housing. Most were individual adults, but couples and families are a significant share.

This place started with a joke. When embattled Old Town property owner Michael Wright told The Portland Tribune in June that he’d donate this lot to local nonprofit Dignity Village (a permanent Northeast Portland campsite that Mubarak co-founded), it came across as an empty threat; a middle finger to city officials who had fined him for hosting food carts on his property. But Mubarak saw the quote as an opportunity. So he called Wright.

There are a number of important differences between Dream Too and the area’s church-sponsored shelters. For one, campers can stay with their significant others or spouses. They are also allowed to bring pets. “Tenants,” as Mubarak prefers to call them, say it’s also more stringent. Fernando, 44, an ex-construction worker with leg injuries who stays at Dream Too with his girlfriend, says it was perfect for him.

“It’s very strict; it’s stricter than shelters,” he says. “But by the same token, you’re a lot safer in the sense of your belongings and yourself. I think this is the best thing they could have done with this space.”

When the camp started coming together in early October, the community was quick to help: Tents and blankets came by way of donation. The ReBuilding Center on Mississippi Avenue donated dozens of doors, which provide privacy from busy Burnside Street. As they set up for the camp’s Oct. 10 opening, the project’s founders knew they ran the risk of being shut down quickly. Then, on Oct. 6, Occupy Portland happened. “We kinda went under the radar,” Mubarak says. 

Though some surrounding businesses complained to the city about Dream Too, the Occupy double standard paralyzed the city from taking action: If Portland was going to allow Occupy Portland protesters to camp in Lownsdale and Chapman squares-—public property—how could it throw out a quieter, more organized encampment on private property? Dream Too’s founders say they’ve never had to call the police for help. When they found a single beer can in the portable toilet in October, organizers kicked everyone out of the camp temporarily.

None of Dream Too’s organizers see the camp as a long-term solution to homelessness in Portland. Rather, it’s a visible reminder that the needs of the homeless are not being met. And for Mubarak, it’s proving another point: “This shows that we can govern ourselves, we can be self-sufficient,” he says. “Not only that we can do it, but we want to.”

The problem: It’s hard to change a system you don’t understand.
A solution: Teach people about how their city works.
The solvers: The Dill Pickle Club.

IMAGE: Inger Klekacz

We’re on a light-blue bus named “Cool,” which is being driven by an old hippie named Joe, who wears a sailor’s cap like the one favored by Oregon’s most famous revolutionary, Ken Kesey. Cool is taking 30 adults—among them a British graduate student, an ex-Evergreen State College professor, a twentysomething graphic designer and an adorable Japanese grandmother who speaks very little English—to look at trash. Yes, everyone here has paid $25 to take a school-style field trip to see giant heaps of stinking trash. 

The bus makes its way down a muddy gravel road to a composting center, Nature’s Needs, which is in the midst of a makeover so it can house its piles of yard debris and zoo shit alongside rotting food from Portland’s new residential composting program. The tour guide explains the subtle differences in pH levels between food waste and leafy waste when a white-haired woman from the tour raises her hand.

“This has got to be the dumbest question ever, but...what’s so unique about dog poop that it can’t go near the food scraps?” she asks.

Thomas chuckles at the question, but he can’t seem to answer it. Will Elder, a smartly dressed business waste reduction planner at Metro, saves our guide from discomfort. “If you think about our human waste, it goes through a whole treatment process,” Elder says.

A handful of side conversations about feces (“keep in mind that herbivore poop is very different from omnivore poop and carnivore poop,” one person insists) break out among the crowd, but the white-haired woman’s curiosity hasn’t been sated.

“So what do I do with my dog poop?” she asks again.

Believe it or not, this is civic engagement, brought to you by the Dill Pickle Club.

The Dill Pickle Club's 2011 introductory video

Marc Moscato, 35, might not have pictured elaborate conversations about poop when the then-unemployed University of Oregon graduate co-founded the organization (“with zero capital,” he notes) in 2009. Still, Moscato—a slim, shy Portlander with Elvis Costello-style glasses—insists that asking dumb questions has always been part of the plan. “We’re just as interested in these things as our members are,” Moscato says. “I think, as humans, we should never stop learning.”

The Dill Pickle Club’s stated mission is “broadening knowledge of Portland’s past, present and future,” and it tackles that mission by hosting lectures, organizing workshops and printing educational magazines and comic books. The Club hosts two or three events a month—recent tours included “How Does the River Work?” and “How is Justice Served?” 

“People desire to connect with the place that we call home,” says club organizer Amanda Miller. “And they desire to connect with people who have that same passion. We put that all together. And when you connect people, you build a stronger city.”

Nick Blackbourn, a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate from the U.K. living in Portland, is one of those people. “I think it’s important to understand how we’re able to live where we live,” he says. “Especially in today’s world, where we forget what government does. It seems like a good time to see what’s happening behind the scenes.”

The Dill Pickle Club’s long-term plans include a storefront, more involvement in the public schools, and a smart-phone app that provides users with virtual tour guides for various Portland locales. All of the projects aim to give Portlanders a better sense of place. “The city doesn’t have one history,” Moscato says. “That’s what makes any community great, is that there are many different stories and many different ways in which to see something.”

For Moscato, the Occupy protests represent living, breathing history in the making.

“It has been amazing to watch the last few months unfold,” he says. “It has made me think critically about the work we do here. Honestly, it has been very inspiring to see so many people talking about these issues of inequality. I know there are big questions about direction and focus, but I am really curious to see what direction it takes.”

So, too, were the people gathering at the Club’s Occupy teach-in. No one knows yet, of course, but groups like the Dill Pickle Club and Move Your Money Portland, along with people like Jeff Harvey and Ibrahim Mubarak, are quietly helping chart the course. 

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