The LA Times published a story Saturday suggesting that a group of neighborhood advocates in Portland trying to mitigate some of the problems associated with the large homeless population in the city might have crossed a line and become vigilantes. Montavilla is a neighborhood just outside downtown Portland which was recently voted one of the 10 best U.S. neighborhoods by the site Lonely Planet. But over the past year or so battle lines have formed over the issue of homelessness and how to deal with it. On one side are homeless advocates who claim the opposition to the homeless presence is becoming vigilantism. On the other side is a new group called the Montavilla Initiative which has been doing foot patrols and bringing attention to some of the problems associated with homelessness.

Interactions between citizen patrol groups led by Montavilla Initiative and the area’s homeless are now at the center of the neighborhood’s divide. On the one hand, local officials and homeless advocates accuse Montavilla Initiative of harassing vulnerable homeless people. On the other, leaders of the nonprofit say homeless encampments foster crime, and they’re just trying to make the neighborhood safer.

Multnomah County official Kim Toevs said Montavilla Initiative members harassed people who use the county’s largest needle exchange site, part of a program that has operated for 22 years in the neighborhood. It offers addiction counseling, exchanges millions of syringes annually, and gives out naloxone, proven to save lives by halting overdoses.

The county had to hire extra security after seven visits by the group, officials said.

“What we see here, about [their] behavior, harassing our clients, and making them feel stalked and scared, is hateful action,” Toevs said.

Ibrahim Mubarak, executive director of a homeless advocacy group, Right 2 Survive, said Montavilla Initiative members are “running havoc on houseless people,” slashing their tents, throwing cold water on them, following them around. “They’re all about getting [homeless] people out of the neighborhood,” he said.

Mubarak later acknowledged, however, that he had not witnessed the incidents himself, and had no proof that they were committed by Montavilla Initiative. “This is happening in the neighborhood to those people, but we don’t know for sure that it’s Montavilla Initiative,” he said.

That last bit is actually a correction that was added to the story after publication. There’s now a note beside the story which reads:

An earlier version of this article attributed one comment in a YouTube video to Benjamin Kerensa. He denies that it is his voice, and The Times was unable to independently confirm who was speaking. Kerensa also denies having made comments on Facebook that were attributed to him. The article also contained comments by Ibrahim Mubarak blaming Montavilla Initiative members for slashing tents and throwing cold water on homeless people. Mubarak has since said that he cannot be certain that members of the group were responsible for those acts.

Today, Montavilla Initiative published a response to the LA Times’ story on its own website.

Mr. Schmid wants you to know that some of our MI members participate in neighborhood walking patrols. It’s true. There are at least 8 other patrol groups in our neighborhood, but we are unable to answer for the actions of anyone but ourselves. We support a patrol that reaches out to the homeless community, including doing cleanups, providing food, clothing and pointing to transition services. Through this outreach we have spent hundreds of hours talking to people living in our public spaces. Some, we have helped to get off the street and have even brought some of them into our homes. We also care a lot about public safety. We advocate for law-enforcement and emergency services for all residents. Patrols have collaborated with police and emergency services to respond to assaults, thefts and fires in progress, while neighbors sleep. Especially, and most controversially, these patrols have spotlighted the unsanitary conditions and health risks, harassment, crime and deadly violence to which people are subjected, who live outside in the city.

Our neighborhood, no matter what the author claims, is more diverse than most Portland neighborhoods. It is made up of a mix of incomes, including minimum wage earners and blue collar workers. Property values are well below the city average. There has been a nearly 50% increase in crime in the last few years. All members of our community (long time residents, newcomers to the city, immigrants, the housed and unhoused) are being robbed and vandalized and the City of Portland has decided to do too little about it. Portlanders are given mixed messages, with the mayor’s office insisting that all laws are being enforced but police officers saying that they are not given the power to arrest criminals…

Mr. Schmid’s article highlights a needle exchange located in the Montavilla neighborhood, part of a city-wide harm reduction program. Neighbors complained that the site had declined into a hub for anti-social behavior and property crimes. Some of our members joined a patrol one evening, to stand across the street in order to verify complaints from neighbors that the program had become a threat to public safety, who cited needles and human waste in neighbors’ yards, a large vehicle hosting drug deals in the parking lot of the exchange, heroin users shooting up and passing out and then driving off intoxicated, people urinating and defecating in public, clients shooting up in neighbors’ yards, even having sex on a neighbor’s front porch.

At one of the patrols near the needle exchange, the group had this interaction with two people across the street who warned the group they weren’t safe in their homes.

The video is mentioned in the LA Times story but more attention is devoted to a private Facebook group in which some of the group’s members have apparently discussed taking the law into their own hands and described homeless people as “zombies” and used other harsh terms for people living on the streets.

I wouldn’t use that language myself but it’s not hard to see why some people are privately upset and lashing out over what they see happening to their neighborhood. It’s not just some fringe group that is upset with the situation in Portland either. Back in July, the Portland Police Association president described the state of the city as a “cesspool.”

Our City has become a cesspool. Livability that once made Portland a unique and vibrant city is now replaced with human feces in businesses doorways, in our parks, and on our streets. Aggressive panhandlers block the sidewalks, storefronts, and landmarks like Pioneer Square, discouraging people from enjoying our City. Garbage-filled RVs and vehicles are strewn throughout our neighborhoods. Used needles, drug paraphernalia, and trash are common sights lining the streets and sidewalks of the downtown core area, under our bridges, and freeway overpasses. That’s not what our families, business owners, and tourists deserve.

Portland has been trying and failing to deal with its homeless problem for years. The claim that this particular group’s activities have spilled over into vigilantism (raised by the article’s headline) seems completely unsupported by the story itself, at least the revised version of it. Taking photos of people committing crimes in public is not vigilantism. Neither is ranting on the internet. If members of the group do cross a line, prosecute them for it. But generally speaking, neighbors trying to keep their city safe and free of drug needles and people shooting up in public parks aren’t the problem. The problem is the hundreds of people with serious addictions who steal from these neighborhoods in order to fund their drug and alcohol habit. I understand why the homeless advocates don’t want to talk about that but that doesn’t mean others being impacted by the homeless aren’t free to do so. Finally, if you’re wondering where that image of the broken car window came from, it came from a Montavilla resident whose car was broken into.