Competing Perceptions of Homelessness

by lizard

Ed Kemmick has a must read on the Billings homeless situation at Last Best News, titled Prairie Lights: Let’s not give up on downtown Billings. The perspective of the piece is incredibly important, considering the stabbing death of a photographer, Michael Sample, by a person who IS NOT HOMELESS has resulted in Billings scrambling to convene a summit on homelessness this October. From the article:

You want to talk about problems with transients on Montana Avenue? Talk to Mike Schaer.

When he moved his computer business to the avenue 33 years ago, there were vacant buildings all along Montana, and “the transients were really all over the place.”

They could buy cheap booze at the Empire Bar, the Rainbow Bar and Lobby Liquor, which was on First Avenue North and even had a walk-up window. And that’s not all.

“There were hookers up and down the street, flagging down cars,” Schaer said.

There has recently been a sense of alarm over the number of transients on the streets of downtown Billings. Business owners vented their frustrations at a public forum and city officials met with the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness to talk about some solutions.

All well and good, Schaer said, but “it’s a manageable problem. And compared to what it was, it’s no problem at all.”

Interesting historical context to consider from a business owner who has been around for 3 decades. Not only was the “transient problem” worse, so was the downtown infrastructure. And here lies the rub.

Revitalizing downtowns is a national trend. Here is Forbes looking into the demographics fueling investment in downtown business districts:

One of the main factors businesses consider when deciding on where to relocate or expand is the available pool of college-educated workers. And that has cities competing for college-educated young adults. “The American population, contrary to popular opinion, is not very mobile, but there is one very significant exception, what we call ‘the young and the restless,’” explains Lee Fisher, president of CEOs for Cities, a national not-for-profit organization that helps U.S. cities map out economic growth.

And there’s one place this desired demographic, college-educated professionals between the ages of 25 and 34, tends to want to live: tight-knit urban neighborhoods that are close to work and have lots of entertainment and shopping options within an easy walk. In fact this demographic’s population grew 26% from 2000 to 2010 in major cities’ downtowns, or twice as fast as it did in the those cities’ overall metro areas, according to a CEOs for Cities report based on U.S. Census data. That is one of the reasons city planners have been plowing money and resources into revitalizing their core business districts.

“The cities that capture the mobile, college-educated ‘young and restless’ are the ones who are most likely to revitalize their downtowns and accelerate economic progress in their cities,” says Fisher.

Take Denver. Civic and business leaders began work on the city’s Lower Downtown neighborhood in 1989 with the issuance of $240 million in bonds. Today LoDo is a trendy ‘hood of over 100 restored Victorian warehouses and buildings filled with art galleries, boutiques, local eateries and nightclubs. Now Denver is in the midst of a 20-year, seven-mega project plan to expand the revitalization efforts through the rest of the downtown district.

Apparently, like Missoula (which now has 3 planned micro-distilleries eyeing downtown), distillers are moving into reclaimed downtown spaces. From the same link:

Other cities are getting creative with their efforts. Over the past decade, Louisville, Ky., converted much of its subsidized housing downtown to market-rate real estate, and it expanded retail offerings. Now it’s adding a twist. In 2011, the mayor unveiled a public-private initiative to restore downtown Louisville’s Whiskey Row. Buildings were rescued from scheduled demolition by an investor group for promising, with the help of government aid, to preserve the facades of the area’s cast-iron buildings. Two years later renovations are under way, and the buildings are expected to house bourbon-themed restaurants and nightlife spots, adding to the success of nearby projects like the mixed-use Whiskey Row Lofts.

“Bourbon is an industry that is growing in Louisville, especially downtown,” says Alan DeLisle, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Development Corporation. “Distillers are reinvesting downtown where they were once located off the river and we are building visitor centers and a streetscape plan that tells the story of the industry.” Among the bourbon businesses coming back to the area: Mitcher’s Distillery, Heaven Hill and whiskey giant Jim Beam.

So what are some of the problems associated with revitalizing downtown spaces? In Birmingham, it’s the PERCEPTION of crime. Again, from the same link:

In Birmingham, Ala., the number of residents downtown has increased 32% since 2000, with 737 planned units in the construction pipeline. A stadium for the minor league baseball team the Birmingham Barons has been built at Railroad Park, a green space created on a former industrial site next to a rail corridor. Office space absorption was positive in 2012, with net 126,000 square feet leased out, and downtown employment density relative to the southern city’s size is comparable to Philadelphia’s business district, local economists are quick to point out.

Yet, the city is still struggling to overcome a reputation for crime. “Despite the positive there are still people who have a negative view about downtown, particularly around the perception of crime,” sighs David Fleming, chief executive of REV Birmingham, a local economic development organization. “But if you look at the statistics, the chance of being a victim of crime in the central business district is actually less likely than in the suburbs.”

Combine the fear of crime with another national trend—that of criminalizing homelessness—and you can see where perceptions are being bolstered by the passing of more laws in more American cities criminalizing homelessness. This month a report came out tracking this trend (read the actual report here). From the first link:

A new report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (“Law Center”), No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, details a startling rise in laws criminalizing homelessness across America – more and more U.S. cities are criminally punishing homeless people for engaging in necessary, life-sustaining activity in public places, even when they have no other options. “There is a severe shortage of affordable housing and a lack of emergency shelter options in our communities, leaving homeless people with no choice but to perform basic acts of survival in public spaces,” stated Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the Law Center. “Despite a lack of any available alternatives, more cities are choosing to turn the necessary conduct of homeless people into criminal activity. Such laws threaten the human and constitutional rights of homeless people, impose unnecessary costs on cities, and do nothing to solve the problems they purport to address.”

The number of laws restricting or prohibiting the basic human activities of homeless people has significantly increased since 2011, according to the Law Center’s survey of 187 cities across the country. Over half of the surveyed cities have laws restricting or prohibiting sitting or lying down in public, representing a 43% increase since 2011. Other criminalization laws have become even more prevalent. Laws prohibiting living in vehicles have increased by a dramatic 119% since 2011.

Now, let’s go back to Kemmick’s piece for an alternative approach to criminalizing homelessness. Here is another downtown Billings business talking about their experience running a business downtown, echoing the sentiment that it’s not the crisis some people think it is:

I heard similar sentiments from Clark and Rachel Marten and their son Rudi. They moved their business — Clark Marten Photography — from Columbus to Montana Avenue last summer.

Clark and Rachel had plans to turn the successful business over to their son. He was interested, but he wanted to move the business to Billings.

“That’s where I wanted to live and where most of my clients live,” Rudi said. He also pushed for the downtown location. They are at 2606 Montana Ave., next door to the St. Vincent de Paul charity office, one of the biggest downtown gathering spots for transients, homeless people and poor families.

The Martens have gotten to know many of the street people by name, and they’ve never had a problem. Their beautifully renovated photography business, 10,000 square feet of ground-level and basement space, has never been damaged or vandalized.

They do have a couple of large planters full of flowers out front. Some people thought they were crazy to imagine they wouldn’t be vandalized or stolen. One planter was pushed over one night, but the Martens suspect it was someone leaving a neighborhood bar, not the local transients.

In an odd way, many of the street people seem to respect what they’re doing on the avenue, Clark said, and they’ll sleep in front of St. Vincent de Paul or the building next door, but not in front of his business.

The reason Ed Kemmick’s piece is so important is because, in the battle of perceptions, the noise of those who depict homelessness as a dangerous impediment to downtown gentrification usually drowns out the sounds of fact and reason. Newspapers like the Missoulian offer sensationalist reporting of anything bad that happens while ignoring or downplaying solutions, like the housing first model. This opens the space for further fear-mongering, like what we saw from “progressive” city councilor, Caitlin Copple, who offered the example of a pregnant woman being chased down a sidewalk as justification for her attempt to introduce a ban on sitting downtown between 6am-11pm.

The targets of this fear-mongering aren’t a problem for us to solve, they are people that we should be striving to better understand.

Toward that end, a local film maker, Jon Baker, is embarking on a journey to find his homeless father. He has already begun filming, and his kickstarter campaign is trying to raise 5,000 dollars to cover his costs. With 13 days left, he’s only raised $130 dollars so far.

Jon’s perspective is important. The lens of a son searching for his homeless father is not one traditional media is interested in telling. Please donate to his kickstarter campaign if you can.


  1. steve kelly

    It’s hard for puritans to see themselves sprawled out on the sidewalk, or raging at some passer-by for spare change. Because all they are forced to see downtown — poverty, mental illness, addiction, “sin” etc. — exists in secret behind walls of money and two-car garages, on “snob knob” and in the ‘burbs. The great crime is that it reminds everyone of the fragility of life and all the insanity trying to deny that we all live with the possibility of a fall from grace. In a way homeless people cope with life’s twists and turns quite well when compared to the self-medication going on in more affluent, more “enlightened” parts of town.

    Remove the stigma, and their knowledge could help city council members figure out what to do without all the hystrionics. Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) is a personality disorder that exhibits an egotistical pattern of emotional, excessive attention-seeking.




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