To ban or not to ban 

Does Missoula need a panhandling ordinance?

As fall approaches and the local transient population begins to make its way south for the winter, some locals are letting out a sigh of relief, mostly because this year’s group of homeless travelers proved more than a handful for some.

“We have a problem with the behavior of some individuals who spend a lot of time downtown,” says Linda McCarthy, director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “It’s not just people panhandling alone…[It’s] public urination, public inebriation. We’ve seen public fornication downtown this summer.”

McCarthy is unsure of the root problem. “They tend to change all the time,” she says.

The number of homeless people in Missoula has clearly increased over the last few years, judging not only from the crowd sitting under the trees at the county courthouse, but statistically as well.

According to Poverello Center Director Ellie Hill, the increase is nearly 65 percent from January of 2005 to January 31, 2007. On that day the Department of Health and Human Services conducted a point-of-time survey that involved having people fill out a questionnaire, which Hill suspects not every homeless person did. Regardless, the survey found 551 homeless in Missoula. Thirty-three percent of those people were employed.

Hill says the increase in homelessness is tied to Missoula’s growth.

“People need to realize that as the overall population of Missoula increases, so does the amount of homeless people,” Hill says.

Despite increases in the homeless population, the size of the Poverello Center, which provides overnight shelter and food, remains the same. That, Hill says, means the Pov is turning people away, and those the organization can help can’t stay indoors during the day.

“At 7:30 [a.m.] they have to leave,” she says, noting that their time on the street can lead to alcohol and drug abuse. That can lead to panhandling, which has some downtown business owners angry.

During public comment at the Sept. 10 City Council meeting several local business owners voiced opinions about this year’s transients. The
consensus was that this year’s homeless have been more violent and aggressive than in years past, and that Missoula needs an ordinance banning panhandling.

One of those business owners is Rhonda Davis of Yellowstone Photo. She says other cities have diminished conflicts by limiting the number of people who can panhandle at any one spot to one, or banning panhandling completely.

“This year we had an influx of not your average happy-go-lucky panhandler,” Davis says. At the Sept. 10 meeting she and her husband Barry told the council stories of people passed out in front of their store, the occasional couple getting it on in the alley, and Barry having an apple thrown at him after refusing to give change to a panhandler.

Stories like this come as no surprise to Downtown Ambassadors Laurie Johnson and Wayne Burnham. The two each work 30 hours a week as middlemen between downtown businesses and local police dealing with homeless activity. Not all unpleasant behavior associated with homelessness is illegal, but businesses still sometimes want transients moved along, and Ambassadors, who are employed by the Missoula Downtown Association (MDA), can help.

“Mostly [the homeless are] not violent, I’ve found,” Burnham says. “But you get enough alcohol in someone and their personality changes.”

Johnson says she carries a can of pepper spray and wears tennis shoes (in case she has to run) when she responds to calls because it makes her feel safer.

Both Johnson and Burnham say they deal mostly with calls from business owners who want a homeless person removed from their store front.

Sgt. Casey Richards of the Missoula Police Department says MPD has its hands tied when it comes to a good deal of typical homeless activity.

“Being passed out in front of a business is legal as long as their legs are not blocking the sidewalk,” he says. The same goes for hanging out on the county courthouse lawn, he says.

But there has been an increase in actual illegal activity, enough that MPD has extended the assignment of two bicycle patrol officers into the month of October.

Richards says the worst thing Missou-lians can do is give money to the homeless, a stance that has the support of the MDA, which runs an anti-panhandling program called “Real Change, Not Spare Change.” Richards says that while banning panhandling wouldn’t solve all the problems, it “would be another tool for the police to use.”

Davis, who lives in Ward 4, says she’s contacted councilman Jerry Ballas about the possibility of an ordinance to ban the activity.

“I’ve told other business owners, too, to tell their councilperson to do something about this,” Davis says.

At least one councilman thinks that would be a step in the wrong direction. Ward 3’s Bob Jaffe says banning panhandling isn’t the solution.

“I’m not to keen on coming up with stricter laws to arrest people or kick them out of town,” he says. “[Panhandling] is a symptom, not the complete problem.”

At the Pov, Hill says one solution that could work for everyone would be a bigger and better facility that could accommodate more people and provide more opportunities to keep homeless people off the streets.

“If people are complaining about the homeless, I’d ask them how much they’ve given to the Pov in the last year,” she says.
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