City Hearings on Tap Monday Eve for Emergency Ordinance “Criminalizing Poverty”

by JC

The Panhandling Working Group, of “Real Change, Not Spare Change” fame, is bringing its newest brainchildren, the “Missoula Aggressive Solicitation Act” and its companion “Pedestrian Interference Act” before City Council for a hearing this Monday night in Council chambers.

Not satisfied with the regular process, where approved ordinances become effective after 30 days, Councilman Strohmaier believes that because:

“the summer months are the time of year when aggressive panhandling has typically been identified as a problem in downtown Missoula–hence, the desire for the ordinance to take effect as soon as possible”

the ordinances should be emergencies demanding immediate implementation. Never mind the fact that there are serious constitutional questions about both ordinances, as they attempt to define speech and behavior in public and on the public rights-of-way.

While the PWG should be commended for its efforts to raise funds for nonprofits serving Missoula’s less fortunate, I fear these ordinances will have a backlash that may undo much of the goodwill that has been fostered.

Even though the ordinances have built-in disclaimers about constitutionality:

Severability. If… this ordinance is for any reason held to be invalid or unconstitutional, such decision shall not affect the validity of the remaining portions of this ordinance.

if Council is shown to have screwed up (and the law will surely be tested and challenged), they want to keep on enforcing as much of the ordinance as possible.  Looking at the next ordinance, it becomes clear that much of the entire Pedestrian Interference ordinance is suspect, also:

It is unlawful for any person to lay or sleep upon any street, sidewalk or other public right-of-way within the city limits.

So much for chillin’ at the park, or Farmer’s Market. How about freedom of speech?

“Soliciting” shall mean asking for money or objects of value, with the intention that the money or object be transferred at that time and at that place. Soliciting shall include using the spoken, written or printed word, bodily gestures, signs or other means for the purpose of urging, requesting, commanding or obtaining an immediate donation of money or other thing of value or soliciting the sale of goods or services.

The solicitation ordinance then goes on to prohibit soliciting in a long list of ways, including if the person engages in:

“Intentionally touching or causing physical contact with another person without that person’s consent in the course of soliciting;”

Like, putting out your hand to shake someone else’s before you ask them to throw a quarter in the “Real Change, not Spare Change” bucket. This is but one of a long line of ridiculous scenarios that can be raised that will become illegal in Missoula.

There is no emergency demanding that these ordinances be rushed through council, and implemented the next day. While the PWG may mean well, they should go back to the drawing boards on this one, and start over.

Ellie Hill had this to say about the ordinances over at Missoula Red Tape:

Pov director Ellie Hill said the nonprofit supports defining inappropriate behaviors and creating consequences for those actions. That’s as long as the rules in the ordinance apply as equally to the aggressive Girl Scout cookie seller as they do to a bellligerent old dude.

But Hill said the Pov isn’t going to get behind the ordinance that bans sleeping or snoozing on streets and sidewalks. She said one Pov supporter called her and wanted to remind her of the story of the Good Samaritan. That good guy was helping the person on the streets — not slapping him with a misdemeanor as the ordinance proposes.

“To me, that’s the very definition of criminalizing poverty,” Hill said. “It’s wrong. How can you provide criminal consequences for being poor? Or having nowhere else to sit? Or nowhere else to sleep at night?”

Right on Ellie!

Head on over to CC Chambers Monday night, or give your local councilors a call or email to let them know how you feel about Missoula’s newest foray into restricting basic human rights and freedom of speech!


The Missoulian ran an article about the issue today, in prep for tomorrow’s hearings. Here is what one person who may be affected by the ordinances had to say about the fines ($100) for breaking them:

“It’s pretty ridiculous to give tickets to guys like us when you know we can’t pay them”

Duh. So what does Missoula Police Department Chief Mark Muir have to say? That “he won’t consider the rules successful if police have to write a lot of tickets.”

So what’s the point of having an ordinance with a fine for tickets that the perps can’t pay, and the Police Chief deems unsuccessful if they have to write many? Think about that. It leads me to some pretty ugly outcomes.

  1. Anon

    Sounds to me like Missoula is trying to become a mini California. What a little Liberal Hell Hole it is becoming.

    I like this ” “Soliciting” shall mean asking for money or objects of value, with the intention that the money or object be transferred at that time and at that place.”

    I guess one can’t sell raffle tickets anymore. Heck, stores won’t be able to sell groceries if that is taken literally.

  2. Lizard

    maybe it would be helpful to remember that alcoholism is a disease, and it destroys people’s lives. alcohol also fuels aggressive, violent behavior, and panhandlers aren’t the only ones susceptible to its effects. i’ve seen some pretty offensive behavior on a saturday night after a griz game by griz fans (and players), like public urination, street brawls, and sexual harassment. do we need an aggressive sports fan ordinance to help maintain order downtown?

    • Anon

      Rather than banning the symptom, doesn’t it make more sense to ban the cause? Just ban sporting events and the problem of drunken, aggressive fans and players goes away.

  3. do ya think they’ll extend the emergency zone to include out front of city hall, senator baucus’ office and the westside health care organizations?

  4. Dupree

    This whole thing is the downtown business owners trying to keep homeless people from scaring tourists.

    They have no concern for the homeless, and use compassionate language to hide the fact that they want to make the most money they can in the summer season when tourists are here. Unfortunately, the summer also brings the homeless folks, and they just want them away from their businesses. They don’t care where they go, or if they get help, and it’s clear from this new act that they’re perfectly content having homeless people thrown in jail if it means keeping them away from downtown businesses.

    Remember, this is same group of downtown business owners who have no problem employing developmentally disabled adults to walk around picking up trash in front of downtown businesses. Shameless money grubbers with no respect for the plight of the homeless.

    • goof houlihan

      Dupree says, “This whole thing is the downtown business owners trying to keep homeless people from scaring tourists.”

      “Shameless money grubbers with no respect for the plight of the homeless.”

      Maybe the business people, the “shameless moneygrubbers” should leave downtown? If we could only get the money grubbers out of town, and those pesky tourists, then the homeless could have it pretty much to themselves, right?

      Damn sensible plan.

      • Pogo Possum

        Now if we can only get Dupree to publish his home address, we will know where to direct the more aggressive panhandlers so they can have a comfortable place to relax during the day and where they will be more appreciated by someone who understands their plight.

  5. Pogo Possum

    It is easy to forget, JC, that many of the people who feel the greatest threat and danger from aggressive panhandlers are other homeless people.

    I spend a considerable amount of time in the downtown area of Missoula and I am very aware of the problems that exist for both the shoppers, the store owners and the homeless on its streets. Many of the homeless faces I see are “regulars.” They are here all year. While many appear to have varying degrees of mental and substance abuse issues they are, with few exceptions, polite, respectful of others and cause very few problems.

    This all starts to change as the weather warms up and the newcomers arrive. While many of the new arrival panhandlers are like our familiar regulars, there is a small group who are aggressive, abusive and outright dangerous. I see them harass other homeless people, demanding some of the handout money they just collected. On several occasions I have seen fights break out when the most aggressive panhandlers push others off a favored street corner. I have had to call 911 several times to get assistance for one of our regulars who was being harassed or beaten up by one of the new arrivals. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize the aggressive street behavior from this problematic minority continues and is directed at other weaker homeless people in the various camps around the edge of town.

    I can relate many other stories where I have seen shoppers, tourists, mothers with small children, etc, intimidated and threatened by aggressive panhandlers. I think we all can. But lets remember that the homeless are equally threatened and have the most to fear by the small percentage of panhandlers who harass and threaten people in Missoula.

    True, this ordinance will not solve all the problems. But, it will give the police one more tool to try to protect not just the store owners and shoppers downtown, but also the law abiding homeless who often fall victim to a small criminal element that shows up on our streets every summer.

  6. Jim Lang

    I will simply repeat what I said on the listserv:

    One part of the Pedestrian Interference Ordinance that really needs comment.

    “It is unlawful for any person to lay or sleep upon any street, sidewalk or other public right-of-way within the city limits.”

    This seems overly broad. According to Section 1:

    “The purpose of this chapter is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of and visitors to the city by prohibiting acts of aggression or interference towards pedestrians. This includes prohibiting pedestrian interference involving actions that intentionally obstruct pedestrian passage on public bridges, streets, sidewalks, parks and other publicly held or owned lands.”

    Simply laying on a sidewalk is certainly not an act of aggression, and while it may (or may not) be obstructive, it is unlikely to be intentionally obstructive.

    And the sleeping ban… again, if a sleeping person is not obstructing the right of way, are pedestrians being interfered with? This seems more like it is protecting pedestrians from seeing the plight of a homeless person than it is protecting pedestrians from some sort of interference.

    My point is that if the supposed intent of the ordinance is to outlaw pedestrian interference, that’s all that it should do. It should not outlaw behavior that does not interfere with pedestrians or other traffic.

    Why not:
    “It is unlawful for any person to obstruct traffic upon any street, sidewalk or other public right-of-way within the city limits.”

    or similar verbiage, which would actually hue to the stated intent? Do we really want to make it a crime to sleep or lay down? That would essentially criminalize homelessness.

  7. klemz

    In similar cases in California, challenged camping/public sleeping laws were found to be an eighth amendment violation when the municipality failed to provide adequate alternatives for its homeless population.

  1. 1 City to “Improve the Quality of Life for People Without Means” « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] And just how does the two new ordinances under consideration accomplish that? “The working group aims to protect and improve quality of […]

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