Men armed with guns patrolled the homeless encampment in downtown Vancouver over the weekend, to the delight of many campers, and they intend to return Friday night.
The informal patrol is made up of nine or so men loosely affiliated with online militia, gun rights or survivalist groups, said Kelin Ray, who is part of the effort. He said the men heard about reports of crime and mischief at the homeless camp near the Share House shelter and started patrolling the area around West 13th Street and Lincoln Avenue on Oct. 18.
The reception was so warm they decided to come back the next weekend, Ray said.
“They were happy to see us and have somebody down there to help police the block, I guess,” said Ray, who’s a corrections officer in Vancouver.
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, however, said he worries that the unofficial patrols could lead to trouble.
“It’s somewhat alarming to think that we have folks down there that are of a mindset of taking matters into their own hands,” Leavitt said.
It’s hard to see any positives in a situation in which homelessness has grown into such a problem, he said, even more so when people experiencing it feel they needed armed men patrolling the public streets.
“I can understand people want to feel secure, but the city is certainly not in a position to provide 24/7 police resources to patrol the area,” he said. “To me it just seems like a recipe for potential unfortunate circumstances to happen down there.”
Rations and rifles
Dorothy Rodriguez, an advocate for the homeless who’s often out at the camp but who is not affiliated with Share, said she initially had some trouble with the notion of armed men patrolling among the tents.
“I, at first, had a really big struggle with it because I like things to be peaceful,” she said. “But I also don’t own the homeless community, and I can’t decide who’s going to do what for them.”
When the armed men came, they introduced themselves and shared military rations and other goods.
“We had coffee and sat around and talked and everybody laughed,” Rodriguez said.
William Hern, who stays at the camp, said he hasn’t heard much buzz around the area about the armed volunteers, but said they seemed accepted.
“They’re all right. They don’t seem to bother anyone,” Hern said. “Pretty nice guys.”
On Friday night, the patrols openly carried rifles, Ray said, and they wore tactical clothing and equipment. The next night they carried pistols.
“We figured we had made our presence known,” he said.
The people interested in militia, survivalist and gun-rights groups and websites might train with weapons or prepare for emergencies as a serious hobby, Ray said, but what the patrols were doing over the weekend wasn’t especially formal; there aren’t club meetings or anything like that.
“We figured this was a good thing to get us out in the community and show them how we can utilize these skills and do an operation where we can police ourselves,” Ray said.
Kim Kapp, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, said she hasn’t heard of any complaints from over the weekend about the group.
In Washington, people are allowed to carry a firearm openly.
The police department has worked with open-carriers in the past, she said. Open-carry adherents have been guarding local military recruitment offices, and Kapp said the department has received no complaints.
“In situations where people are exercising their right to open carry, we don’t do anything unless someone on private property wants them gone,” she said.
Ray said there were a few people in the camp who were a little concerned about seeing armed men walking around, but felt better after talking about it with Ray and the others.
“Most of the people were happy to see us and thanked us,” he said. “The public coming out has really given these folks some hope and some peace at night.”
Rodriguez said each night passed without incident.
When they don’t have to worry about what might happen, the camp residents are more ready to open up and talk about what brought them there, she said, which makes offering help easier. It also helps people get a better night’s sleep, she said.
One woman living at the camp, who said she goes by Sissy, said she wishes the men were around during the daytime. Plenty of mischief happens at the camp when the sun’s up, she said. Having more sets of eyes on the police officers that come by would put her more at ease, she said.
“They’re good guys. We want them down here,” she said.
Clarification appended: Volunteer armed guards have been out at some military recruitment centers consistently for some time, not for a short-term engagement, as could have been construed from the original post.