Missoulian Editorial Board Shills for Downtown Businesses

by lizard

The Missoulian editorial board wants us to know that avoiding litigation should NOT be the main concern of city officials regarding the constitutionally dubious ordinance amendments rushed through last month. No, their main concern should be downtown businesses:

While litigation is always something to avoid whenever possible, Missoula’s city councilors should not let that be their overriding concern. Rather, they should keep foremost in their minds that downtown Montana has a legitimate problem with aggressive, vandalizing behavior – a problem that demands a legitimate solution. Whether that solution requires ordinance changes or enforcement changes, it ought to be one that respects the rights and civil liberties of all.

Missoula, like many cities, has long struggled with how best to respond to the unwanted behaviors that seem to concentrate downtown. They range from obviously unsanitary and unsafe activities like public urination and defecation, to less obvious things like repeated, increasingly insistent demands for money from passers-by.

The worse these behaviors are allowed to get, the harder it is on those who work, shop and visit downtown. And it hits downtown businesses hardest, because they’re the ones that see the cumulative effects of all these individual instances: frightened employees and fewer customers.

Despite the narrow framing of the Missoulian editorial board, the solution is neither ordinance changes or enforcement changes. People in Missoula might understand that if our local daily bothered including the cost of over-utilizing ER services and the county jail for people consumed with addiction and mental illness.

The only people that seem to matter in this conversation are shoppers, employees and business owners. That is obviously the interests the Missoulian editorial board represent, which is what I think people should keep in mind as the editorial board concludes their op-ed with this:

So this month, Mayor John Engen expressed his hope that Missoula could tweak the ordinances to avoid a lawsuit, and the item was moved back to committee for further discussion. In committee, Engen is expected to share some ideas he’s been hammering out with the ACLU for changing the ordinance.

But in public comment offered earlier this month, two active members of the downtown community – Dan Cederberg and Matt Ellis – reminded council members that the ordinances and subsequent changes made to them were brought about because of continued struggles over downtown’s cleanliness and safety.

It’s awfully soon to say whether ordinance changes would accomplish the intended goal of making downtown Missoula cleaner and safer – or cost the city an expensive lawsuit. However, it’s clear that allowing things to stand as they were was already costing Missoula plenty, and downtown businesses have been bearing the majority of these costs.

The city council ought to keep that in mind as well as it discusses ordinances designed to make Missoula’s downtown – indeed, all of Missoula – safe, clean and inviting for all.

This is absolutely NOT true. These ordinances are designed to insulate downtown from “those people” and in doing so, the proponents of these ordinances don’t appear too concerned that the probable result will be relocating problematic behavior to other parts of town, like parks and the surrounding neighborhoods.

And downtown businesses are not bearing the majority of the costs. St. Pat’s writes off around 4 million dollars annually by reacting to addiction and mental illness through the ER, and I’d like to see the court/jail costs quantified so Missoulians can better understand the real cost of our community’s failure.

This Missoulian op-ed on behalf of downtown businesses ran the day these ordinances were discussed in committee. Thanks to the second life of Bob Jaffe’s listserv, we have some commentary from Caitlin Copple and Jason Wiener to consider.

Caitlin Copple:

Administration & Finance
Adam now chairs this committee. Wet housing came up right away since we had just talked about the above-mentioned ordinances and were set to approve a contract regarding the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. Jason said CDBG and HOME funds will be set aside to do a small amount of permanent supportive housing but that they won’t be enough and that providers are working to get this off the ground. I find the pace frustrating. When will we actually see this project happen? I would support giving more money to providers if it means they can quickly and meaningfully solve the problems of bad behavior by drunk people downtown through housing that fills the true need.

Copple is frustrated? I can sympathize with that. I find the pace frustrating as well, but service providers don’t seem to command the kind of influence that makes things happen fast, like thinking up these amendments in early fall and getting them passed before the end of the year.

Here is what Jason has to say (the lead-in is a reference to the ADU issue, which is back in the headlines):

On the heels of discussioning whether to make it legal for someone to inhabit a private space, we returned to our ongoing discussion of laws regulating the degree to which downtown public space should be regulated. The mayor brought forward a number of revisions, and the summary is reprinted in Caitlin’s email. There was not consensus on a coupleof points: The ACLU objects to definition of solicitation (which bans silently holding a sign) and objects to the ban on sitting (As the mayor says, it would make the cost of soliciting in the CBD standing, however if someone can’t stand or is playing an instrument that requires sitting they are banned.) Dan Cederberg, representing the interests that supported the ordinance, objected to removing the sit, sleep, lie in tunnel provisions and removal of exclusion zones based on distance from a vendor and advised that they would like them back in the ordinance if we are facing litigation regardless. PSH has just Jon, who was running the meeting, Alex and me as well as the four new people. In order to get something going, I made a motion to advance the ordinance the mayor sent, with changes removing the provisions the ACLU objected to. We set a public hearing on Feb. 10. The revised ordinance is better in many ways than the one that was on the books before so I see some benefit in moving forward but this whole thing has left me with a very bad taste. The conversation has been consumed by fear, people describing how one thing or another they see or experience makes them afraid and some of the things that have been described are scary. But the insistence that the definition of soliciting include silently holding a sign? That’s not disturbing because it makes someone afraid. It’s disturbing because it confronts us with want and I think the emotion it evokes is guilt or shame, not fear. The same goes for people who are passed out cold or so far from sane that they are asleep in their own excrement. Guilt and shame don’t make consuming more fun; they can really put a damper on that stuff. It reminded me of the Women in Black vigil on the Higgins bridge for so many years. What a bummer it is to be reminded in the middle of our anticipation of a coming weekend about violence and deprivation half a world away but that was solicitation.

There will be more committee hearings and public comment opportunities and city council votes before this mess is figured out. There is also a chance that, despite the Mayor’s attempts to find a compromise, the ACLU may decide to sue anyways.

I hope the work being done to actually move toward solutions isn’t overshadowed by this colossal waste of time and resources. Just read the first paragraph of this boingboing article (h/t @KathleenMKimble):

A program in Salt Lake City decided that it would be smarter — and more humane — to spend $11K/year each to house 17 chronically homeless people and provide them with social workers than it would be to waste the average of $16,670/year per person to imprison them and treat them at emergency rooms. As Nation of Change points out, this commonsense, humane and economically sound way of dealing with homelessness works, unlike the savage approaches taken by other cities (like the Waikiki rep Tom Bowker who smashed homeless peoples’ carts with a sledgehammer, or cities like Tampa, which banned feeding homeless people).

Defenders of the amendments will say it’s about behavior, not homelessness. If I’m not mistaken, I think I read something about a BID study being used to back that up, but I don’t think that study has been made available to the public.

If it’s only about aggressive behavior, I have yet to hear a good explanation about why statutes like disorderly conduct don’t address the threatening behavior proponents of these amendments have described. Maybe I’ll hear a better explanation in the coming months as this process of reconsideration plods along.


  1. lizard19

    Homelessness in Hawaii

    • Liz,
      I am sure that Caitlin would want you to explain why it matters to you. That is not as cold as it seems, but not everyone really ‘gets’ why it is important. Your “why” could help them craft a more humane way of addressing whatever it is that they think they are trying to solve.

      I spend lots of time with the homeless and other transients, it is something I want to address after I get other priorities out of the way- like holding the last legislature accountable for their anti child decisions and for making it way harder than it has to be to get their (our) needs met.

      send me your contact information, please.

      • lizard19

        if you want to weigh in on this issue, Left in the West is at your disposal, right?

  2. I read the checklist of provisions deleted from that bill – boy, there were a lot.

    Obviously someone made a mistake, and I’m wondering why no one bothered to research existing Montana statutes to see if they were about to be violated. Are there paid positions for this, or is that the city council members’ responsibility? Hey, maybe the mayor’s too, huh?

    The hospital should be able to recoup those losses through federal health care programs. We know those people aren’t paying taxes because they have no income. It’s fair to say they’ll pay no penalty next year for not having health insurance. Hospitals shouldn’t bear those costs, which only get redirected to other consumers, which will largely be taxpayers anyway now. So either way the government is going to pay those health costs.

    I also don’t think homelessness or panhandling would be in the papers much if those folks were shunted off to other areas. Sure, people who live next to parks will complain, but without money to back up their voice I doubt the Missoulian would be reporting on it much, if at all. After all, that’s space we could use to advertise downtown businesses. Lee does have financial troubles, right?

    So what do we do? First, I don’t think there’s much we can do. Are the majority of these transients coming from Montana? I think they’re coming from out of state. So is it our state programs that are failing them? After all, I think the roots of homelessness probably begin in childhood or at least years before someone ends up on the street in Missoula. So in that regard, wouldn’t it be a better idea just to put up a giant fence around the state?

    While that may keep out large shipments, of whatever, it’s pretty silly. What will Missoula’s streets look like in 10 years? Does anyone envision not a single transient anywhere? I don’t. I think it’ll be about the same it is now, just a little worse. After all, winters are getting shorter.

    • JC

      Greg, couple of things. First off, hospitals are in a world of hurt right now. Both St. Pat’s and Community are “restructuring” and laying off a bunch of people. Why’s that? Because our legislature didn’t authorize the Medicaid expansion. When Obamacare was written, it was a given that all states would expand Medicaid, and that care for indigent folks would be covered by Medicaid, so the federal subsidies for reimbursing hospitals for uncompensated care was slashed. So all hospitals in states with no Medicaid expansion are getting shafted, and communities are losing jobs and providers.

      Secondly, indigent folks don’t have to get health insurance coverage — they will qualify for an exemption in states w/o the Medicaid expansion. Problem is, you have to apply for the exemption — it’s not automatic. So all indigent folks who get back on their feet and get a job years down the road, will find themselves with a bunch of fines waiting for them when they next file their taxes with the IRS.

      And lastly, I think you’ve got some mistaken assumptions about “transients” and homelessness. I’d suggest you go and volunteer with one of Missoula’s outfits that provides services to homeless people. You’d be amazed what you’ll learn about the roots of homelessness, and where the majority of homeless people come from (hint: it’s not “out of state”), and who they are (hint: they are not characterized by the visage of the unkempt “transient” that drives downtown businesses to push the city into unconstitutional reactions — think women, children and a lot of parentless teens).

      • I certainly think the legislature made a mistake, and I hope some of those republicans getting laid off give their reps an earful.

        But if many or most are coming from Montana, then where are they now? Did they go south for the winter, because I don’t see a whole lot of people with signs downtown.

        Wow, IRS penalties, that’s a real incentive for me to start working again, huh?

        • JC

          You do realize that the people downtown with signs are just the tip of the homeless problem in Missoula, right? And that if they are “out of sight, out of mind” that nothing changes with all the rest of the homeless in our city?

          • Well, yeah, I remember when I moved back here in August and saw all these cars, trucks and motorhomes in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Most of those people are probably working.

            Out of sight and out of mind does change things, though, because then people don’t have to look at the problem. That’s worth a lot to many.

            You know, it’s funny. I don’t remember these debates ever happening in Helena. There’s the God’s Love right there downtown on Last Chance Gulch, but you hardly hear about issues there.

            I think it’s just hard for most people to care about this because they’re so close to being homeless themselves. One missed paycheck or doctor’s visit and they’re done. It’s very hard to care about others when you’re caring about yourself.

            And remember that looking at the Dow Jones average each day does take up a lot of time for people not worrying about living on the street.

            They’re worried about living down the hill.




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