A.J. Jenkins drinks vodka on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn on a warm morning this week. He and his buddies banter back and forth, periodically asking passersby if they've got any spare change.
"I think it's good that they give us money," Jenkins says.
The personable transient with a bushy white beard and a blue cap explains that he's disabled and his monthly check from the government only goes so far. Jenkins reaps up to $20 a day panhandling, he says, freely admitting that he buys booze with the money. He doesn't see anything wrong with that. "We're just hurting ourselves," he says. "We're not hurting anyone else."
A significant portion of Missoula begs to differ. Downtown business owners say people like Jenkins, referred to as "serial inebriates," frighten shoppers. That's in part why city administrators and social service agencies are intensifying their efforts to dissuade locals from giving street people money.
The city, the Poverello Center, and others rolled out Missoula's annual "Real Change not Spare Change" program this month. The effort calls on generous Missoulians to contribute to Real Change carafes placed in businesses around town rather than giving money to Jenkins and his friends. For the past 10 years, proceeds generated from the program have gone to the Missoula Food Bank, the Poverello Center shelter, and the Salvation Army. This year, money collected will help fund newly launched Homeless Outreach Teams. Composed of social service workers and law enforcement, the teams will help mediate conflicts between downtown business owners and transients while handing out supplies like food and water. They'll also elucidate alternatives to street life.
City of Missoula Communication Director Ginny Merriam says people should think twice before dropping a dollar into a transient's hand. "Nobody in Missoula has to beg for money to get food, clothing or shelter," she says. "All those things are free every day with the human services agencies that we have. So if people are asking for money, it is likely that it is for drugs or alcohol."