Sleepers squeezed

After weeks of debate filled with allegations of class warfare, the Missoula City Council Monday night approved an ordinance prohibiting people from sitting, lying or sleeping on a sidewalk within 12 feet of a building entrance.

The ban takes effect 30 days from Monday's 8–4 vote. Law enforcement will use the time to give sidewalk dwellers a heads up.

"I anticipate there will be a steep learning curve," said Police Chief Mark Muir at the meeting.

The council acted at the urging of downtown business owners who say homeless people are frightening shoppers away. During multiple meetings this summer, city representatives heard concerns from restaurateurs and retailers like J. Elaine's Boutique owner Kim Klages-Johns, who told the council that she regularly cleans up messes made by downtown denizens. On a recent stroll up N. Higgins Avenue, Klages-Johns said she counted 18 people sleeping or lying on the sidewalk.

"That's not right," she said. "That's not the way it should be."

Councilman Dave Strohmaier acknowledged a problem, but said it's been tough to zero in on one way to curb a range of undesirable behavior.

"It quickly became apparent there's no silver bullet," he said.

Councilman John Hendrickson, gunning for a fix, aimed to reinstate the ordinance's original language, which banned sleeping or lying on sidewalks altogether, rather than the 12-foot building entrance buffer that eventually passed.

"I think what we're doing is counterproductive to downtown," Hendrickson said. "You're not paying attention to [business owners]. But that's not unusual."

Meanwhile, council members Bob Jaffe and Stacy Rye asserted everyone owns city sidewalks, regardless of their socio-economic status.

"The public right of way belongs to everybody, not just people with money in their pockets," Rye said.

Dick Haines, Lyn Hellegaard, John Hendrickson and Renee Mitchell voted against the ordinance.

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