Jack Tafari (born October 31, 1946 in Gravesend, Kent, United Kingdom), is a Rastafari and an activist who has worked to improve the conditions of the homeless in the developed world. Tafari has devised and applied a system that harnesses Internet technologies, activism and traditional public relations techniques to advance the interests of the homeless. He has successfully used this approach to promote "sanctioned tent cities" as transitional housing for homeless people.
Homeless Front of the UK: Tafari currently lives in London, where he is coordinating the activities of the Homeless Front of the UK, HFUK.
The Homeless Front UK is a collective of homeless Londoners who seek to create a tent city as a sanctuary for themselves and for other Londoners without shelter. The ‘tent city’ they envisage will be drug and alcohol free; a safe and secure place where homeless people can live while they seek work and make the transition to more permanent housing. Unlike the common urban model of government- or charity-provided overnight shelter for the homeless, this model provides the dispossessed with the sense that they have a home.
In the UK there are an estimated 400,000 ‘hidden homeless’ without a roof over their heads. In December 2006 the Homeless Front UK initiated its Out of the Doorways Campaign to empower and house some of these. As of December 15, 2006, the nascent HFUK has so far housed 11 of London’s ‘rough sleepers’.
Jack Tafari pioneered the concept of the sanctioned tent city in Portland, USA, between 2000 and 2004 by spearheading the creation of Dignity Village. Now Tafari and his group want to “replicate dignity” in London, creating a flagship, eco-friendly tent city as a model for other UK cities where homelessness is a problem.
The Portland, Oregon ‘Out of the Doorways Campaign’: In December 2000 Tafari was a ‘rough sleeper’, living under bridges and in doorways in Portland, USA. There weren’t enough shelter spaces for all of Portland’s homeless, and Tafari found himself sharing the streets with others - including, for example, legless, wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran John Reese. Tafari decided that something needed to be done.
With seven others Tafari began occupying city properties and pitching tents. “Confronted by police for their unlicensed use of public land, the initial group of eight men and women had the benefit of a forceful voice in the person of homeless activist Jack Tafari, and the early support of a few local politicians and associated coverage in the local media. The Portland police department eventually realized that the group, then calling themselves Camp Dignity, was engaged in complicated Constitutional issues of redress of grievance, and deferred the political issue to the local political authority: The Portland City Council and Mayor.”
While living on Portland’s streets, Tafari had become the protector of a sixteen-year old boy who went by the ‘street name’ of Field Mouse. Field Mouse had been evicted from a hostel for runaways for violating curfew. As his ‘street father’, Tafari helped him to forage for food and protected him from ‘chicken hawks’, or sexual predators. At a Portland public library, Field Mouse taught Tafari how to use computers and email.
In early confrontations with the Portland police, Tafari used his newfound technological prowess to advance his cause by combining Internet communications and traditional public relations techniques. To ‘sweep’ Camp Dignity, the police were required to serve twenty-four hours notice. Tafari started writing press releases and distributing them by email, using the Internet facilities of city libraries. His group put their things in shopping carts and, led by their wheelchair cases, they were ‘moved on’ by the police from place to place. John Reese was appointed as ‘Grand Marshall’, and as a result of extensive media coverage their ‘shopping cart parades’ became internationally celebrated.
The most famous shopping cart parade, which took place on Martin Luther King Day, 2001, included 35 shopping carts and was headed up by a disabled pair in wheelchairs, Grand Marshall John Reese and "Granma Coyote", Jada Mae Langloss. It attracted nation-wide media coverage, and the spectacle of armed policemen herding a group of the indigent made for compelling viewing.
As a consequence of the Martin Luther King Day Parade, Camp Dignity lasted for a space of about six months underneath Portland's Fremont Bridge. The Mayor and Council granted the camp the status of a city "pilot project" and offered them a site seven miles from Portland at the Sunderland Recycling Yard. As a negotiating tactic Tafari distributed another press release headlined "We're Having a Big Parade". Faced with the prospect of another highly publicised parade of the indigent, Portland backed down, and allowed the campers two more months at the Fremont Bridge site. Calling off the planned parade, Tafari sent out another press release, "Correkshan". After protracted negotiations, Camp Dignity accepted Portland's offered site at the Sunderland Recycling Yard.
Street Roots: Throughout the ‘Out of the Doorways Campaign’ years, Tafari was a staff writer and submissions editor for the Portland street newspaper Street Roots, and he used this position to publicise his cause among the homeless. The following passage, from an article in the December 2000 issue, is an example of the agitprop Tafari wrote to rally Portland’s homeless to his cause. In an article titled "The Future", he said,
"Today we live in a time of social transformation… a new informational age and a time of economic globalization. It is a time of social dislocation. Today the economy is booming and so is the homeless population. What we see around us now in the downtown core of our cities is homeless people wall-to-wall. Many of the jobs that paid anything have gone south or elsewhere or are now done by machine. Today the cost of space in our cities to live in is climbing beyond the reach of many low-income people. And today homeless people are harried and harassed, run from here to there, taxed by fines, commodified and used as a resource, sometimes brutalized, occasionally felonized and often used as slave labour by the prison industry. You know what they say: the good can't rest and the wicked never sleep. Not, of course, that ev'ry one of we is good. But we are human beings and we do not deserve the treatment we receive at the hands of wicked men.
"Very soon now we shall pitch the tents of Joshua on various sites around the city. We are blessed here in Oregon with ample public land and so there is space if not a place for us to go. We must build that place for ourselves. Know that the kernel of the future lies buried in the present. It is important for the future how we set up and govern our camps now. We have many friends. There are those who would fight against we, workers of iniquity who profit from our situation and would rather things remain the way they are. It is time to be of good courage, brothers and sisters. We may wander for a time in the wilderness. But as surely as night follows day, one day we shall reach a land flowing with milk and honey."
From ‘Out of the Doorways’ to Dignity Village: Dignity Village began as a group of tents pitched in a leaf-composting yard in 2001. It has evolved since into a ‘green’ eco-friendly village housing 60 formerly homeless people in a safe and secure environment. The tents are gone, replaced by a variety of ‘not to code’ buildings.
In April 2003, in partnership with the City Repair Project, Portland’s first straw-bale dwelling prototype was built at Dignity Village. This was followed in 2004 by the construction of five straw/clay, passive solar houses. In 2004, Dignity Village and the City Repair Project were awarded a Lewis Mumford development award by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), in part for these projects.
A donated bus serves as a library, a windmill provides electricity and the villagers grow their own organic vegetables. The village is self-governed, drug and alcohol free, and built around principals of love and respect for self and others.
Dignity Village is set up as a self-governing entity, and residents are bound by these rules of behavior, contained in their membership agreement.
1. No violence toward yourself or others.
2. No illegal substances or alcohol or paraphernalia on the premises or within a one-block radius.
3. No stealing.
4. Everyone contributes to the upkeep and welfare of the village and works to become a productive member of the community.
5. No disruptive behavior of any kind that disturbs the general peace and welfare of the village.
Dignity Village has been imitated elsewhere by other homeless people, notably in Osaka, Japan.
Incorporated in Oregon as a 501(c)(3) membership-based non-profit organization, Dignity Village is governed by bylaws and a board of directors with an elected chairman and other corporate officers. Tafari was chairman of Dignity Village Inc. from 2002 until 2005. The community has generated considerable international interest as a possible means of ameliorating the problem of developed world homelessness. In 2004 Tafari was invited to London to address the Crisis Innovations Fair on the subject of homelessness and possible solutions. He shared the podium with Dr. Michael Woolcock, senior social scientist with the World Bank.
Dignity Village has been featured in articles in London’s The Guardian, in The New York Times, and in other publications and media. The LA Times captured Tafari's vision for Dignity Village in a whimsical, idyllic quotation. "Essentially, we will create housing for ourselves....The housing will be solar-powered, wind-driven. We'll eat from our garden, on our own table, and rest under our own fig trees when our labors are done."
A fluent speaker of English, Dutch and several creole languages and dialects, Tafari is also a poet in Jamaican creole: Some of his poems are on the Dignity Village website. Like much of his poetry, his life is testament to the power of the powerless. By combining charisma, ingenuity and dedication while cleaving to the moral high ground, Jack Tafari has created ideas - absurd in the context of conventional wisdom - that offer hope for the homeless.
Note: I helped prepare this article for Wikipedia. The main author was Kevin Brown.