Michael Stoops, spokesperson for the National Coalition for the Homeless, remembers when cities dealt with transients by arresting them and handing over a one-way bus ticket. It was Miami in '86, to be exact.
Since then, most cities have adopted more compassionate policies. San Francisco, for example, employs a "housing first" model in which the city tries to find permanent housing for its 3,000 chronically homeless residents. Stoops points out that, while noble, no city has the capacity to successfully put a roof over all of its residents.
On Monday night, the Missoula City Council took a stab at addressing its homeless problem with two separate ordinances. To the city's credit, city officials assembled a diverse group of stakeholders—police officers, downtown business owners, reps from the Poverello Center and a heap of other concerned citizens—to draft the legislation. As city spokesperson Ginny Merriam puts it, the group's aim was to make downtown safer and more enjoyable for everybody.
The first ordinance does exactly that by prohibiting aggressive solicitation. As written, the law allows people to ask for money, but employs some common sense limitations. You can't solicit by a bank or approach people at outdoor cafes. Most importantly, you can't threaten or intimidate anybody. Obviously, the police must use discretion when considering what constitutes intimidation, but Merriam says that's the idea. The city simply wants to arm its police force with a law that allows them to ticket dangerous panhandlers. That makes sense to us.
The second ordinance discussed on Monday night prohibits interference with pedestrians, including one's right to catch some zzz's on a public sidewalk. It's this proposal that we find problematic.
Ellie Hill, executive director of the Pov, says the city has 923 homeless residents. The Pov has 70 beds. That leaves 853 people with no place to go. Drawing lines on where the homeless can legally sleep seems like an unreasonable and unrealistic answer to a problem that won't vanish anytime soon. If sidewalks are banned, what's next? It doesn't sit right with us.
We're not suggesting there's an easy answer, and we're not advocating for Missoula to adopt San Francisco's idyllic model—not yet, at least—but City Council should recognize that each night, about 1 percent of the city's residents sleep on the streets. As the council continues to discuss these ordinances, we think they should let the homeless sleep in peace.