Public comment at city council meetings has recently centered on one topic: criminalizing Portland’s homeless population.
One group that’s been especially vocal? The “Montavilla Initiative,” a conservative spinoff of the Montavilla Neighborhood Association.
Montavilla Initiative members have vilified the police bureau for not responding to low-level crimes they say have been committed by homeless people in their steadily gentrifying East Portland neighborhood. The group also recently filmed individuals who were entering a syringe exchange site and domestic violence shelter, with the stated aim of documenting their “bad behavior” to share with police.
To sell others on this narrative, the group has perpetuated a familiar, but dangerous, myth: That most homeless people don’t want to be helped.
In an interview with right-wing radio host Lars Larson, Montavilla Initiative Chair Angela Todd claimed that she’s spoken with hundreds of homeless people who are “service resistant”—meaning they choose to be homeless, take drugs, and commit crimes, even when offered alternatives.
The idea makes Leo Rhodes laugh.
“That’s crazy to me,” says Rhodes, a Street Roots vendor who experienced homelessness in both Seattle and Portland. “Absolutely no one I know enjoys being homeless. It’s offensive.”
Liora Berry, the head of Cascadia Behavioral Health Care’s street outreach team, says it’s “really, really uncommon” to encounter homeless individuals who reject help.
But she can see how outsiders can jump to conclusions.
“The experience of not having a place to call home is an idea that’s so hard to wrap your head around unless you’ve lived it,” Berry says.
There are many reasons individuals might seem “resistant” to services, Berry adds. Perhaps they were previously promised housing, health care, or addiction treatment, only to have it fall through. Perhaps they’ve been scammed by a seemingly friendly stranger too many times.
“People don’t want to get their hopes up unless they can trust you,” says Berry. It sometimes takes outreach teams months of visiting a homeless encampment before earning enough trust to help transition its occupants off the streets.
Perhaps they were sexually assaulted the last time they slept at a shelter. Perhaps their possessions were stolen the last time they left to seek housing assistance. Perhaps they’re hesitant to accept help before others who are worse off.
These explanations aren’t as tidy or convenient as simply being “service resistant.” But the label certainly makes it easier to blame individuals for systemic failures.
“Calling people ‘service resistant’ helps distance us from responsibility,” says Marc Jolin, director of the county and city's Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS). “If someone says they’re not interested in services, it doesn’t mean they want to be homeless. It should make us ask, ‘Are we offering the right services?’”
Portland’s service providers have begun to tweak their models to meet the population’s needs. Transition Projects now allows guests to bring their dogs inside their shelters and allows couples to sleep in the same area. Peer-run villages like Right 2 Dream Too, Hazelnut Grove, and the Kenton Women's Village have expanded, often with public support for their success at transitioning folks into permanent housing. And JOHS has funneled dollars into programs that help newly housed people find stability, while Metro pushes for a housing bond that would expand this model across the region.
These incremental solutions show proven success—unlike the reactionary arrests that groups like Montavilla Initiative are clamoring for. Which begs the question: Which population is truly resistant to our region’s services?