Right 2 Survive is a grassroots organization led by houseless people, formerly houseless people, and supporters, based in Portland, Oregon. We are dedicated to teaching about and defending the human, civil and constitutional rights of people experiencing houselessness. www.right2survive.org
Over the past year, a vocal minority of Portland residents has targeted houseless people in the name of community safety and livability. A recent LA Times article describes some of their tactics, including harassing people accessing a needle exchange and other services, surveilling and doxxing houseless people, and using deeply dehumanizing language to talk about people living unsheltered. The article refers to MI’s behavior as “vigilantism”, defined as “law enforcement undertaken without legal authority by a self-appointed group.”
R2S strongly denounces the behavior reported in the article. What the article does not mention, however, is even more egregious vigilante behavior: for months, the Montavilla Initiative (MI) has tracked, surveilled, and systematically catalogued houseless camps, and colluded with police to sweep them, over and over and over. MI encourages residents to report camps the moment someone sets up shelter. What’s more, MI makes lists of “suspicious” people and vehicles, and shares this information with members and police. As MI states: “It is a resource available to dues paying members of Montavilla Initiative. Its basically a database we are curating with photos that has a mobile app and web interface where members can view or even contribute to entries [of suspicious vehicles and RVs]…We have the same for individuals and will soon have the one for incidents too. We also make the info available to Portland Police, NRT, Portland Police Bike Theft Task Force and other patrols.”*
MI’s tracking and communications with police have contributed to mass sweeps and arrests of houseless people. One leader boasted that over a one-week period earlier this fall, “MI has directly been responsible for 11 apprehensions and arrests.” These particular arrests came after police on ATVs rolled down the bike path along I-205 in the Montavilla neighborhood, forcing people to take down their tents and checking outstanding warrants–which are often for failure to appear in court on charges related to engaging in acts of survival in public. This is what vigilantism looks like: tracking, surveilling, cataloging, and harassing houseless people, and ultimately colluding with police.
Yet, sweeps do nothing except traumatize people and waste resources; people move from one block to another and back again, increasing the likelihood that they will lose their IDs, medications, mementos, and life sustaining survival gear. Do groups like MI realize that when they pass out coats and other gear, and then call for more sweeps, those supplies are often simply confiscated and dumped in a landfill?
There are more houseless people today than at any time since the Great Depression. Today’s crisis is a direct result of ongoing cuts to federal funds for affordable housing and mental health that began in the early 1980s, as well as a housing system that privileges profits over the human need for shelter (WRAP, 2010). Shelters are full, under-resourced, and understaffed (Waldroupe, 12/21/18). Moreover, shelters are simply unsuitable for our houseless neighbors who depend on their pets, want to sleep with their partners or children, or have been robbed or experienced violence or sexual assault at shelters (Zielinski, 10/11/2018). People who opt to live outdoors are making a rational choice about where they think they have the highest chances of surviving.
There is literally nowhere for people to go. We don’t need more vitriol, amateur social work, or policing. Many, many people are working tirelessly to make our housing and healthcare systems more just, and we urge our housed neighbors to do the same. We demand the following:
- NO more sweeps when there are so few viable People have a right to rest.
- Land where houseless people are allowed to safely sleep, live, and govern themselves. Notably, crime stats have dropped demonstrably in neighborhoods where organized encampments have been allowed to exist in both Portland and Seattle (Schmid, 5/23/2018).
- More tenant protections that keep people from being evicted through no fault of their own, or from receiving indiscriminate rent hikes simply because the market will bear
- More access to public restrooms, showers, laundry facilities, and trash services for our unhoused neighbors; more places where people can safely live in their **
- Treatment options that are open 24 hours a day–increasing the likelihood that someone will have access to treatment when they are ready for
- More needle exchanges, in more neighborhoods, and more access to sharps containers for safe
- More people, working in all sectors, who understand what trauma does to people, and can respond
- More groups advocating for and practicing alternatives to calling the police in response to crises. For examples of alternatives to calling the police, see here:uua.org/safe/handbook/alternatives-calling-police.***
* Quotes in this statement are from the Montavilla Public Safety facebook page, a page moderated by MI board members and leaders. R2S has taken care to read these quotes in their full context. In addition to the facebook page, R2S has spoken with dozens of people living and working on the streets, who corroborate the LA Times’ report and more.
** Although houseless people are often blamed for leaving the city a mess, Metro reports that the vast majority of illegally dumped trash – a full 78% – is left by housed residents–and often near camps (Dooris, 11/13/18).
*** Our neighbors living unsheltered disproportionately experience profiling and police violence: the Portland Police Bureau has faced federal scrutiny for the killing of James Chasse (Therialt, 2/6/13) and for profiling people based on perceived mental health conditions (US vs City of Portland), and has been the subject of local investigations for more general profiling based on perceived housing status (Hill, 7/13/18). Houseless people are disproportionately cited for non-violent crimes, often the result of simply surviving in public (Lewis & Woolington, 6/29/2018; Sand, 7/6/2018).