On the night of Sept. 2, an irascible 52-year-old ne’er-do-well named Rick Strieff was sleeping next to the railroad tracks in downtown Missoula with a group of friends. Their sleep was interrupted by the arrival of three teenagers who—for reasons apparently limited to the sheer thrill of violence—began to kick and beat Streiff and his friends with their fists, feet and a 2-by-4.
The teenagers then ran off, leaving three men in the hobo camp needing hospitalization. Strieff was the worst off. He had, for some reason, been singled out for extraordinary punishment, and been kicked repeatedly in the head. He awoke from a coma 11 days later in a state of dementia, unaware of his surroundings and accusing the nurses at St. Patrick Hospital of stealing his imaginary beer.
His beating has had further repercussions. Strieff and his friends happened to be camping behind the 3:16 Mission, a drop-in soup kitchen operating out of a rented building on Toole Street, just steps off the main rail line from Spokane to Billings. The mission offers no beds for the night, but does serve breakfast, lunch and voluntary Bible devotionals to about three-dozen homeless people every day.
A week after the midnight brawl, the operators of the 3:16 Mission were told by landlord Jim Caras that their month-to-month lease would not be renewed. The mission is scheduled to close Oct. 31, leaving Missoula with the Poverello Center as the one remaining place serving hot meals to the down-and-out. The mission’s administrator is a steady-eyed, deeply religious woman named Debbie Lester. She is trying to reopen 3:16 in another building, and is hoping it will be somewhere in the downtown core. “God doesn’t want us to be shut down,” she said. “He just hasn’t told us where we’re going to go.”
Many in downtown Missoula are hoping God will prefer the real estate west of Reserve, or north of the tracks, or just about anyplace but the stone grid of shops, cafes and offices that make up the town’s central commercial district, one of the most financially healthy downtowns in Montana.
Missoula’s heritage of kindness toward the indigent—the Poverello Center gets good word-of-mouth in trainyards all over the West—has brought a headache to some city center merchants in recent years. Layabouts and panhandlers are just not good ornamentation for a prosperous shopping area, and the Missoula Downtown Association tried to remedy the problem with a campaign launched three years ago. “Real Change, Not Spare Change” encouraged residents to donate to social service organizations instead of handing out quarters on the street.
Another push to cleanse downtown bore fruit in August when the Missoula Housing Authority caved to pressure from local merchants—including The Depot bar and restaurant—and voted to halt the purchase of the dilapidated Dorothy Apartment building near the tracks for use as a low-income residence for veterans. Missoula will now use its $1 million federal housing grant to build the vet’s home near the county jail on Mullan Drive—one long hike from where window-shoppers can see them.
The 3:16 Mission—which takes its name from the famous passage of the Gospel according to John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever should believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life”—did not get off on a good foot with downtown interests because of its outreach to bums hanging out underneath the Higgins Ave. bridge. Debbie Lester and her husband Dan got their start in the mercy business four years ago by handing out free sack lunches and clothes underneath the bridge every Friday night. It struck some as nothing more than catered room service for the terminally lazy, as well as a reinforcement of a lifestyle that didn’t need to be perpetuated. It also makes downtown look bad when panhandlers start hassling shoppers, as some have complained. “It’s hard for us as businesses to see this going on, because there is a perception that downtown is unsafe,” said Sage Grendahl, the associate director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “I’m sure that some of them are people who need assistance, but others—well, they’re just characters.”
An April survey by state officials estimated the city’s homeless population at 492, with nearly half of that number admitting that mental illness was part of their problem. Downtown clearly would like to see the problem go elsewhere, but the closing of 3:16 may have exactly the opposite effect, said Lester.
“People are going to have no place to go from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.”—the hours that the Poverello Center is closed—“and they’re going to wander. They’re going to go into businesses to get warm. They won’t have any place to go to the bathroom.”
Lester said she has no ill-will toward Jim Caras, or to the mission’s neighbors who reportedly put pressure on Caras to yank the lease: the Kalkstein Law Firm and the Spirit of Peace Alternative Catholic Community. Neither Caras, nor the Kalkstein lawyers or the Spirit of Peace returned calls to the Independent.
“Jim Caras isn’t a bad guy,” said Lester. “He’s right. It’s time for us to move on. We’ve been praying for a bigger building anyway.” Missoula police, meanwhile, think they have an idea of who beat Streiff nearly to death—an 18-year-old transient who fled to the Midwest after the incident. Finding him will be easy compared to identifying a lasting solution for downtown.