How to Survive a Plague (of Transients)

by lizard

I finally watched the documentary How to Survive a Plague. Wow. If you want to know what focused, relentless, informed direct action can accomplish, please watch it if you haven’t already.

The director, David France, pulls off an incredibly balanced look at the passion/policy dynamics that ultimately splintered the policy-driven Treatment Action Group from ACT UP. Despite the inevitable infighting, the success came from working both fronts: bodies in the streets and appeals from insider podiums, flipping the brain-trust stashed away in the endless little compartments of bureaucracy.

I’m going to try and keep that successful model in mind as I read about (in the Missoulian, of course) the transient epidemic plaguing the streets and wooded areas of Missoula. When these transients aren’t engaging in statutory rape under bridges and fighting over pork chops, they’re leading law enforcement on 120 mph car chases.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say these transients are like the HIV virus. What are people anyway? Big, hot messes of cells, and those cells can be infected by viruses, so the question becomes this: how can we keep our healthy Missoulian cells safe from infected transient cells?

Well, if streets and sidewalks are like veins, where cells flow, then there are policies being discussed that would enhance policies already implemented that aren’t apparently effective in curing downtown from these panhandling, pedestrian interfering transients.

The Indy reported on this latest policy discussion last month in this piece by Jessica Mayrer. It’s an exciting article that has both a picture of a transient, and a lead-in story of a cane-wielding transient that goes something like this:

Ten months ago, a transient wielding a cane chased Jenna Smith from her Higgins Avenue clothing store to her car, which was parked in a lot between Pine and Broadway. Smith was eight months pregnant and terrified.

“I was able to get to my car,” she says. “He was banging his cane on my car.”

Smith owns Cloth and Crown, a women’s clothing boutique. After the incident last winter, she filed a police report and bought pepper spray for all of her employees. The additional precautions help assure the safety of Smith and her staff, but they don’t alleviate an increasing number of recent problems stemming from illegal and unsavory behavior among transients downtown.

Besides being kind of like viruses, transients are also kind of like zombies. I’m sure it has nothing to do alcohol, which does shit like this on an annual basis:

Based on the analyses of 100 individual country profiles, The World Health Organization (WHO) has released The Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health focused on analyzing available evidence on alcohol consumption, consequences and policy interventions at global, regional and national levels.

The harmful use of alcohol is a global problem which compromises both individual and social development. It causes harm far beyond the physical and psychological health of the drinker, including the harm to the well-being and health of people around the drinker. Alcohol is associated with many serious social and developmental issues, including violence, child neglect and abuse, and absenteeism in the workplace.

The harmful use of alcohol (defined as excessive use to the point that it causes damage to health) has many implications on public health as demonstrated in the following key findings:

• Harmful use of alcohol results in the death of 2.5 million people annually, causes illness and injury to millions more, and increasingly affects younger generations and drinkers in developing countries.

• Nearly 4% of all deaths are related to alcohol. Most alcohol-related deaths are caused by alcohol result from injuries, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and liver cirrhosis.

Dealing with the core issues fueling the transient epidemic? Sounds expensive. And after a summer exacerbated by dirty Rainbows, how about we craft something to deal with physical proximity of the infected cells to healthy cells, in the specific area where the infection festers, downtown. Like this:

According to counts conducted by Missoula Downtown Ambassadors, the city’s urban core hosted more panhandlers this year than at any time since 2010. Law enforcement and city officials attribute the influx in part to this summer’s Rainbow Gathering held outside Jackson. The gathering drew nearly 10,000 people, a portion of whom stayed in Missoula before and after the event.

Smith isn’t so much worried about how the transients landed on her doorstep, but rather how to curb their troublesome behavior. That’s why she supports a proposal unveiled during an Oct. 1 meeting of Mayor John Engen’s Downtown Advisory Commission that aims to further limit loitering and panhandling in the city’s urban core. Specifically, the proposal seeks to ban sitting, sleeping or lying on downtown sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Don’t worry, healthy Missoula cells, I’m sure if you do it no one will mind.


  1. During my career, I saw what I believe to be among the worst, if not the actual worst, of the effects of alcohol. That’s fetal alcohol effects or fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Kids whose mothers have drank heavily or especially who have impaired livers before their pregnancies, and who continue to drink during their pregnancies, are always born impaired, sometimes grotesquely so.

    That said, I wonder how much those persons whom you are lumping together as a monolithic group are being correctly described?

    Obviously, a significant portion of the homeless, panhandlers and/or dumpster divers are truly and significantly impaired with mental disorders, making addictions, if they have any (“dual diagnoses”) substantially more difficult to treat. However, if appropriate services are delivered, the bulk of them can do quite well, living independently, though rarely holding down jobs in a competitive marketplace.

    The next assumption you make is whether or not a substantial proportion of the Missoula homeless actually came for, and remained after, the Rainbow Gathering. A survey of the jail current population could easily determine that. I’m betting that it could be accomplished by just one or two people.

    If they actually did arrive with the gathering, winter is upon us and their ranks will likely be diminished. Few people with any alternatives (like moving to a warmer clime) would be anxious to stick around in Montana through the winter.

    So, my guess is, you’re overreacting and misdiagnosing. We won’t know if either of us is right until circumstances make that judgement and someone in social services does their homework.

    For the residual population of native to Montana street drunks, it’s worthwhile providing intervention and treatment and referring for whatever services might be available.

    In the absence of actual data, I wouldn’t be so quick to judge.

    • lizard19

      actually evdebs, you are misdiagnosing this post. I despise the media’s (mostly the Missoulian) use of the term “transient” but instead of being directly antagonistic I’m making a purposefully hyperbolic comparison between transients and HIV. I don’t agree with the misguided efforts to craft and impose new ordinances in a destined-to-fail attempt to sanitize downtown from their presence.

      • Okay. Sorry about that. I think your piece might be better defined as “tongue or cheek” or facetious, rather than hyperbolic, but I’ll be more cautious with criticism in the future.

        • lizard19

          no worries, evdebs.

  2. Greg Strandberg

    Hm, I think Missoula needs to legalize pot and funnel a 25% tax into uncomfortable sidewalks. Not many of the transients coming into the Noon’s I worked at on Van Buren in 2005 probably would have been interested in that stuff, though – they all wanted tall cans of Ice House (code 581) or better yet, OE800 (code 811)

    My question is, what was so hip and happening in Missoula in 2010? Who the hell was in charge then? Why haven’t they been strung up, damn it!

    And I’d much rather save our tax dollars, in the form of not debating this silly issue at city councils and such, and just let the cold do the work for free.

    • lizard19

      you might want to think about how the ER and jail function with the chronic homeless population. it’s far from being “free”.

      • JC

        One day, a couple of years ago I watched closely the police and fire department/ambulance crew lambast a downed drunk. Neither wanted to take him him. 9 uniforms from an ambulance, a fire truck, and a couple of cop cars & motorcycle circled around a guy passed out on the sidewalk next to the county courthouse, trying to cajole and yell at the guy enough so he’d get up and walk out of public sight.

        They didn’t want to take him to either the ER or the jail, and the only solution they offered him was to get out of the public eye, and off of the sidewalk, or they’d have to haul him in… somewhere. Eventually he was hauled to the ER, as he couldn’t walk. The FD/ambulance folks lost the battle of will between them and the police department. Most disgusting display of public “authority” I’ve seen in Missoula in a long time. The amount of money the city just spent in response and for the ER would have been enough to get the guy a week’s worth of treatment in a detox facility.

        When we call them “transients” we don’t have to take responsibility for their care or futures. They become less-than. Once we dehumanize part of our community, we can treat them like we treat dogs — with ordinances, cages and bus passes for “down the road” relocations like they are just a problem bear who might do better in a community with better protected dumpsters.

        Sometimes Missoula just makes me sick. But then I realize it is just a microcosm of the rest of the country…

        • I agree with both of you.

          Earlier this year I had a problem with a next door neighbor to some property I own in California. He quit taking his medication after the guy for whom he provided live-in personal assistance died.

          The guy left him his house for as long as he lived, at which time it would revert back to the guy’s estate.

          The caretaker was making everyone crazy and he got more paranoid and agitated. I and neighbors tried to get him mental health outreach, but the previous program for which I’d worked decades ago, had been defunded.

          Instead, the county only responded by sending deputies to deal with a guy who was increasingly decompensating, over a period of a couple of months.

          Finally, when deputies came at a particularly manic stage, they wrestled with him, with him getting hold of one deputy’s nightstick, and hit him with it.

          Now he’s sitting in the pen for at least a year at which time he’ll be discharged once again with no medication and it won’t take much time at all for him to be back in the slammer.

          It costs at least $30,000 a year, $2,500 a month, to keep anyone in the pen. With his problems it has to be considerably more expensive.

          So instead of spending a few hundred dollars on outreach and follow up, the taxpayers will be paying enormous sums to keep this guy while he’s doing life on the installment plan.

          His situation is undoubtedly a microcosm of what’s happening across the U.S. as services to the mentally ill fall to the budget ax of bogus “fiscal conservatives” who are unable to do the real math.

  3. What is the diagnosos, doc? Is homelessness a symptom or cause? Treating symptoms ignores the generational origins of mental health issues and addiction. No easy answers, but a secure place safe enough to get some real sleep would be a step in the right direction. Surely, the Randian-Reagan, “tough love” model has not worked well for anyone.

    • JC

      Steve, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to listen to Dr. Gabor Mate, who is the medical director for the Portland Hotel in Vancouver B.C. The Portland Hotel is Canada’s largest facility of last resort for homeless, mentally ill, and addicted people. His thesis (diagnosis?) — poo-poo’d by many and ignored in the U.S. — is that capitalism is to blame for much of this:

      Capitalism Makes us Crazy.

      • Big Swede

        When Hugo sides with you it must be true.

        “Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said he knows what’s been causing the floods that have killed 32 people in his country and left 70,000 homeless: “criminal capitalism.”
        “The developed nations irresponsibly shatter the environmental order, in their desire to maintain a criminal development model while the immense majority of the earth’s people suffer the most terrible consequences,” he said on Venezuelan television Sunday.”

        Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/hugo-chavez-blames-massive-flooding-capitalism-70-000-remain-homeless-venezuela-article-1.472396#ixzz2kHcgE295

      • I’ve listened to Gabor Mate. I think he’s a favorite with the “woo-woo” crowd.

        Often, his banter wasn’t exactly what I would call “fact based.”

        The problem is, that when the general public is presented with an “authority” who is spouting unmitigated bullshit, the average person just assumes that it is they who are wrong, rather than the speaker.

        • lizard19

          the “woo-woo” crowd? how dismissive of you. there is plenty of credible work being done regarding the physiological, biological impacts of emotional trauma and stress.

          you may have listened to Mate, but I don’t think you actually heard him.

          • I listened very carefully, actually. He synthesized, all right. But he put unrelated facts together with what I believed to be absolute nonsense to make a case. I even went to research some of his claims that I though had no basis in established reality, but I always have so much on my plate that I was distracted by something that was real, rather than theoretic issues, and wasn’t able to get back to it without seeing if I could find his talk on line and going through it piece by piece.

            Science has always been corrupted and diverted by fantasy. There have always been those willing to fabricate theories for political or personal or pecuniary or popular reasons, such as Lysenko and Lamarck, or Velikovsky, or Michael Behe.

            In fact, there have been ridiculous theories about HIV, which you brought up to make your point, offered by many quacks and crackpots and demagogues. Peter Duesberg is a perfect example of that.

            Now you have to understand that I have a great deal of admiration for Mate in many respects, particularly (as should be perhaps obvious from my previous comments about the “transients” in Missoula) his opinion that addicts should not be punished for their addiction, per se.

            So I couldn’t imagine that how Mate could come to the conclusion that addiction was a result of biochemical processes that are exclusively a result of our upbringing in early childhood. He makes the ridiculous statement that such an upbringing creates a 4600% higher likelihood that addiction will result from such a childhood which he defines on his own “ACES” scale. To make such a silly statement would be to deny the need for some extremely basic research, but research would unfortunately for him disprove such a contention. All one would have to do would be to look at siblings or even identical twins raised together, one or more of whom succumbs to addiction, and others who didn’t. Poof! That’s the end of the testable theory.

            But always anxious to test whether my own bias might be misleading me and preventing me from reaching sound conclusions, I looked up Mate to see if others shared my misgivings.

            Bingo.
            ————————-
            Unfortunately, however, Maté is fundamentally proposing a reductionist vision of addiction, where abuse history and posited biochemical changes are now THE essential causes of people’s self-destructive action. It is not enough to say that this model is highly conjectural. It also isn’t true — that is, it makes little sense of the data. Vincent Felitti conducted a huge epidemiological study on early childhood experiences. He found that only a tiny group (3.5%) of people with 4 or more adverse childhood experiences became involved in injection drug use. So Maté’s model is highly undiscriminating. The percentage of addicts increases somewhat with the number of adverse experiences. Even so, this relatively minor elevation in no way presupposes the damage is caused biochemically, rather than simply by detrimental psychological consequences and deeply dysfunctional homes and environments.

            One counterargument in favor of Maté’s position might be that injection drug use is low among this population because so few people who have experienced abuse are exposed to injectable drugs. But this argument does not hold either. Felitti has included alcohol in his research. And, with drinking, the rates of dependence follow the same trajectory depending on the number adverse childhood experiences, but are still not much higher for abuse victims — 16%.

            I would welcome a dialogue on this subject, but I’m not sure this is the best place for it. Perhaps on personal e-mail, but that might present problems as well, regarding the anonymity that we both seem to prefer.

            • lizard19

              sounds like you have a pretty firm basis for your skepticism. I appreciate the comment.

              • As do I, yours.

            • JC

              I agree, we need a lot of dialog on this stuff. But above you say you “listened to Mate”. Have you read “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts?” A lot of the criticism I hear from you above seems to be a lot of strawman arguments, as the things you assert he said (i.e. “the conclusion that addiction was a result of biochemical processes that are exclusively a result of our upbringing in early childhood” — Mate makes the opposite statement in his book, that addiction is not an exclusive result of early childhood, that it is just one major contributor) that I haven’t seen in his writings.

              If you ever get an opportunity to read Ghosts, I’d love to continue this discussion with you. Not many people are even willing to look at this sort of stuff, much less discuss it intelligently.

              • I haven’t even had the time to read a book in which I wrote one chapter. I’m buried under reports.

                Here’s an interesting one for Veterans Day: http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/dangerroom/2010/04/6-2nd-brigade-combat-team-15-6-investigation.pdf

                McCord was badly disabled and emotionally traumatized, during his tour when he rescued this little boy.

        • JC

          Read “In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts”. It’s got an impressive list of scientific research that Gabor Mate synthesized in coming to his conclusions. It also tells his story of working at the Portland Hotel in Vancouver. I’d hardly call his professional work and writings “woo-woo”. Then again, I don’t expect most Americans to give a Hungarian-born Canadian any respect, especially when he indicts the whole U.S. criminal and social welfare system. He offers a very radical look at how to find solutions to homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

          • mike

            Really, Americans don’t care about what a “non American” thinks, Silicon Valley begs to differ. So this Mate fella took some research, cherry picked data and came up with “groundbreaking conclusions” that happen to be “radical”.

            That’s sure to work, lmao.

            • Big Swede

              I was wondering how the homeless get along in some non-capitalistic countries.

              Cuba for instance. http://www.therealcuba.com/Poverty.htm

              • When I’d head into Hong Kong and go down to Central to do some shopping or whatnot you’d see a lot of ‘homeless’ people. Now, this area was posh, one of the main financial areas of the city, and with lots of glitzy designer stores and such. It’s the heart of HK.

                But everyday around 4 to 5 you’d see lots of women show up. They’d lay down their flat cardboard so they wouldn’t have to sit on the dirty elevated walkways and they’d sit in groups of 5 to 6 and play cards, talk, the usual. There’d be about 100 groups like this spread all over the place.

                These were usually women that worked as Nannies for rich people, and many were from the Philippines or other lesser Asian countries. They’d be kicked out once mom and dad got home, although some were lucky to have little closets to sleep in at the houses they worked in.

                This meant the lower class of beggars that had been through industrial accidents had to pick up and find better spots. These women never asked for money, but they had nowhere else to go until 7 or 8 the next morning. And every year there’d be more.

  4. And why wouldn’t we all be a little bit crazy?

    http://www.alternet.org/economy/4-creeping-ways-capitalism-killing-us?

    Very sad to think about how we treat our soldiers on this Veteran’s Day. DOD suicide and sexual assault rates alone should give pause to all you “stay-the-course” advocates.

    • I spent a couple of years in Viet Nam where most of the GI’s were draftees. Now we have a “volunteer army,” and it hasn’t been as good a thing as expected.

      Some years ago, Michael de Yoanna of the Colorado Independent, did a great series on GI’s returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs. They not only had high suicide rates, but their level of violence against others, robberies, murders, etc., was astronomical.

      The recently reported sexual assault rates, including by males upon males, is truly staggering.

      There has been a substantial uptick in violence around military bases in other places. I’m very familiar with the phenomenon in proximity to Ft. Wainwright and Ft. Richardson in Alaska, for instance.

      I just read the 38-page report by the army regarding the killing of two Reuters photojournalists in Iraq, an incident made famous by the Wikileaks releases. It’s a bit of a whitewash, of course, and completely ignores the “video game” atmosphere where insurgents and civilians are wantonly gunned down from helicopters by the kind of people who are rooting for the bulls at bullfights.

      It’s no surprise to see what kinds of attitudes, including contempt for human life, are brought back home.

      Only one congressperson, Barbara Lee, voted against the Iraq war. Only one Senate Republican, Lincoln Chafee, voted against the resolution essentially giving Bush permission for the Iraq invasion. He was joined by 22 Democrats, I think, only one of whom (Paul Wellstone) was running for reelection just a few weeks later, as Bush was pushing the “you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” rhetoric.

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