Battle lines 

Who's winning Missoula's war on poverty?

Missoula's war on poverty took one step forward and one step back this month. We'll start with progress: The Westside Neighborhood Association made good on its promise to find a solution not just for itself but for the whole city, submitting a model zoning ordinance that prohibits soup kitchens within 300 feet of any residential area.

The Missoula City Council plans to vote that proposal into law next week, after which Westsiders' long neighborhood nightmare will be over. The Union Gospel Mission will be prevented from buying the old Sweetheart Bakery, and Westside children can once again play next to that icon of safety, an empty warehouse.

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It was one powerful blow in the fight against poverty, but council can't seem to follow with the two. After the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged a similar ordinance in Boise, Mayor John Engen announced that the city would reconsider its plan to ban panhandling in Missoula's Business Improvement District.

He is missing a golden opportunity. Having made it illegal to help poor people in our residential neighborhoods, we have the chance to keep them from asking us for help downtown. That would solve poverty forever, but the council isn't going to do it.

It's almost like they don't care about the deeper problem. Westsiders kept poverty from spreading to their neighborhood by stopping Union Gospel from luring it with sandwiches, but they didn't address the underlying cause. That's still lying under bridges as we speak, just waiting for us to get within 20 feet of a business or ATM.

That's the thing about poverty: People don't realize how easily it can affect them. The cash machine is the very opposite of poverty, yet it has become a magnet for poverty's worst effects. The downtown storefront, normally an economic dynamo, has become ground zero for the poverty bomb whose fallout is blanketing our city.

But even as the ground is blanketed and poverty is bombed, our council shrinks from duty. Engen and the councilors should take a lesson from the Westside Neighborhood Association. They weren't content with a not-in-my-backyard solution, and now, thanks to their efforts, all of our backyards are safe. But what about our offices, our coffee shops, our bars?

You see, I've never accepted the cynical argument that charity begins at home. You can't solve a widespread problem like poverty by limiting your efforts to your own neighborhood. You have to hit poverty where it lives, whether under the Reserve Street bridge or up the Kim Williams Trail.

You have to show poverty that you won't take it lying down, or sitting upon a chair, stool or any other object placed on a public sidewalk during the hours between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. You have to let poverty know you mean business, as well as public transportation and the entrance to any pedestrian footbridge or tunnel.

"Not today, poverty," you have to say. And you have to keep saying it until poverty goes away—not just out of our neighborhoods, not just away from downtown, but away from Missoula entirely. Possibly all the way to Bozeman.

We've come a long way since the WNA and the city council started talking about ways to fight poverty last summer, but we've still got a long way to go. We may have solved the problem in our residential neighborhoods, but pockets of poverty remain.

For several years now, the Poverello Center has offered housing and job placement services, threatening to release poverinos back into homes and businesses. Anyone who has visited the center's downtown location has seen the terrible effects of poverty firsthand. It's a daunting sight, but if we all pitch in as a community and a council, we may never have to look at it again.

That's the dream, isn't it—to be done with poverty once and for all? Maybe I'm crazy to imagine a town where no one has to step over a body shivering in a doorway or walk past a line of hungry faces. Decent people have tried to end poverty for years, so perhaps I'm foolish to imagine that we can stop seeing it within our lifetimes.

But I believe there's something special about this town. Knock on any door or walk into any downtown shop, and you'll find a person who lives in a house, who owns a business. They know the threat that poverty presents, and they've got the resources and the numbers to fight it.

The good news about poverty is that there are still more of us than there are of them. Sure, the problem is persistent, demanding our attention when we'd rather be shopping or having a few drinks with friends, but if we stick together and stay involved, we can make Missoula a city that doesn't tolerate poverty at all.

We didn't ask for this fight. Poverty seems to be everywhere lately, and the problem isn't anybody's fault. The solution, though—what we do about poverty, and what we have done when it's come knocking at our doors—that's something we are all responsible for. That part is on all of us.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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