In Portland, a neighborhood watch group stirs debate over how to respond to the homeless

The Montavilla neighborhood is a place just about anybody might want to live in.

It has an “almost suburban” feel, a city website notes, but it’s near downtown Portland, with a population that’s more diverse than the city as a whole. Homes range from pricey modern to modest bungalow; businesses of every stripe do a bustling trade.

For the record

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. A previous version of the article also contained comments by homeless activist 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, and that he did not personally witness them. The article also characterized Montavilla Initiative as a conservative organization, which some members and observers dispute. It also misquoted Kerensa as advocating that homeless people overdose on heroin “if they wish.” He did not specifically refer to the homeless and actually said “if they want.”

Last year Montavilla made Lonely Planet’s list of the 10 best U.S. neighborhoods.

It also broke apart over homelessness and rising crime.

Like many American cities, Portland struggles with homelessness. What’s the solution to getting people off the streets? What’s the right balance between compassion and safety? Why does the world’s richest country have so many people living in tents?

Last month, Portland-area voters funded $653 million for affordable housing, on top of $258 million in 2016. These are major investments for a city its size. But relief may be years away.

In Montavilla, the debate over homelessness has taken on an edge in the last two years.

In June 2017, the Montavilla Neighborhood Assn. passed a resolution asking the city to “cease further sweeps of [homeless] camps,” which could be “unconstitutional and human rights violations.”

PORTLAND, ORE. — WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2018: Kevin Heard, who has been unemployed and homeless f
Kevin Heard, who has been unemployed and homeless for five months, talks with members of the Montavilla Initiative who stopped by his tent while on patrol in their neighborhood in Portland, Ore. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

That fall, a new board of directors was voted in that included Micah Fletcher, a survivor of last year’s infamous stabbings by a white supremacist on a light rail train. Around the same time, however, a new nonprofit, Montavilla Initiative, formed as an alternative, focused on public safety in the neighborhood. Battle lines hardened.

Montavilla Initiative began doing its own foot patrols, which others had done previously. Experts say similar groups have sprung up in other cities, including Long Beach and the west San Fernando Valley, as a conservative, tough-love response to the problem.

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. Among other things, they said, Montavilla Initiative members photographed clients of the needle exchange, some of whom feared being exposed on social media.

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

Montavilla Initiative denies using violence or intimidation against homeless people.

Of 15 homeless people interviewed for this article, many said they’re aware of what they call the “neighborhood watchers.” One voiced support, but most said they were afraid of them. None specifically accused Montavilla Initiative patrols of bad behavior, however, and they couldn’t differentiate between the new patrols conducted by the nonprofit and those conducted by others.

“You mean the ones that harass us?” said Amy Griffin, a homeless woman, when asked about foot patrols. She said people blow car horns “at all hours” and yell “Get out of here!” at her.

A man named Jerry, who wouldn’t give his last name, said they were “rude and disrespectful” and left him “coiled up inside.” Carlos Guzman said they threatened and cursed at his friend.

But a homeless woman who gave her name as Sky Smart expressed gratitude to Montaville Initiative for giving her woolen socks and leftover clam chowder. “Homeowners have a right to watch the neighborhood,” she said.

Police statistics show property crime has risen in the neighborhood in the last three years. In July, Portland Police Assn. President Daryl Turner called Portland a “cesspool” and criticized elected officials for their response to homelessness.

The uptick in crime has motivated Montavilla Initiative, some ofwhose members acknowledge they have no training in homeless outreach.

The patrols “have been something we’ve had to learn along the way,” said group member Jeff Church. “The intention is to treat people with kindness. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t.”

PORTLAND, ORE. — WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2018: Montavilla Initiative chairwoman Angela Todd talks
Montavilla Initiative chairwoman Todd talks with homeless man Kevin Heard outside his tent alongside a Portland MAX light rail line while on patrol in the Montavilla neighborhood in Portland, Ore. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The group’s leaders, including Angela Todd, Benjamin Kerensa, Evelyn Macpherson and Church, say the nonprofit has helped clean up Montavilla Park, including picking up discarded needles and less dangerous trash, and that its patrols increase safety. They say they scan for illegal behavior, not homelessness.

They also say they support local homeless people, and they’ve developed helpful relationships with some, such as Paul Rodriguez, who lives in his Corvette.

One Multnomah County worker, Kelsey Knavel, who is a program specialist at the needle exchange, said she had seen members of the group verbally harass people, but has never witnessed violence. “They’re very savvy; they haven’t violated any laws,” she said.

On two evening patrols in late November, Rodriguez and others poked heads out of tents and vehicles to chat with Montavilla Initiative members. Todd hugged one woman and called another “sweetie.” Rodriguez, Kerensa and Macpherson chatted about “bad apples” — troublemakers who ruin things for more peaceable homeless people.

Some interactions ended less amicably.

During one recent interaction with a trio of homeless people taking shelter in a church alcove, the group left after voices were raised in anger; two men seemed to have been upset by the surprise nighttime visit.

Neighbors want to “have a presence,” Todd said, and shouldn’t tolerate “mayhem,” including public urination, drug use, violent crime, people throwing rocks at cars or siphoning gas. A campaign by the nonprofit is called #enoughisenoughpdx. (PDX is Portland’s airport designation.)

But the language on a closed Facebook group called “Montavilla Public Safety” offers a window into the animosity unleashed in the neighborhood.

PORTLAND, ORE. — SATURDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2018: A homeless encampment along Interstate 205 in the Mo
A homeless encampment along Interstate 205 in the Montavilla neighborhood of Portland, Ore. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The site declined to give two Times’ reporters access, but screenshots shared by an activist reflect vitriol and violence. Homeless people are called “zombies,” “terrorists,” “ferals,” “leeches” and “barbarians.” Homelessness and criminality are conflated. Frustration and anger boil over. Names and locations of specific people are included.

“It’s clear, they will steal, rape, injure, murder us hard working citizens without a care in the world,” one participant writes.

One user writes he doesn’t patrol “because I think I would not be able to abstain from cracking some skulls.” Kerensa, who founded the Facebook group and is a former leader of Montavilla Initiative, said that offensive posts in the group were quickly deleted and offenders were removed from the group. One screenshot of an exchange on the site, however, has Kerensa saying it would be good to “legalize heroin and let them get the strongest stuff and dose themselves off if they want. Natural selection.”

Kerensa, who said he was once homeless himself, said he didn’t recall using those words, but“if that’s what it says, then I’m gonna go ahead and own it.”

Users write of taking justice in their own hands, or using drones with video capability to observe local camps — something two homeless interviewees said does occur. Kerensa said drones had not been used to harass homeless people, although they might have flown over them.

Randy Teig, who worked for years with neighborhood stakeholders including Montavilla Initiative members as a police sergeant, said he had spoken to Kerensa and other members of the group about their behavior.

“I cautioned them about what they’re doing. I said, ‘You’re not police officers; don’t go out there and start injecting yourselves into police business.’”

Teig left thepolice in 2018, but said he knows the group well. He cautioned that online “groupthink,” no matter the politics, can be dangerous.

“There’s polarization in the community right now, no question,” he said. “People are frustrated, and frustrated people do stupid [stuff].”

Schmid is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

PORTLAND, ORE. — WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2018: Members of the Montavilla Initiative citizens group
Members of the Montavilla Initiative citizens group approac Nina Lopez, right, and a friend while on patrol in their neighborhood in Portland, Ore. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times
Sky Smart
A woman who identified herself as Sky Smart, who has been homeless for 11 years, wipes a tear as she talks about her life at a homeless camp in Portland, Ore. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times