Can We Stop Having the Same Homeless Conversation Every Year?


by William Skink

16 years ago I purchased an ink drawing (pictured above) for ten bucks from a guy by the name of Tommy (not the leprechaun). Tommy used fine-tipped micron pens and sat almost every day on the footbridge by UM’s campus, selling his pictures. I had just moved to Missoula to finish my degree, and I lived on the Northside, so I biked across the footbridge all the time.

I bought several pieces from Tommy and would usually chat with him for a bit. Tommy didn’t live inside, but he was adamant that he didn’t consider himself homeless. He was an artist, he would say, choosing to live this way and he was proud of how he lived. He also took pride in keeping the area around the footbridge clean, and during the summer months would decry the seasonal homeless population that blew through town.

Tommy died a few years after I first met him. To this day I can’t cross that bridge without thinking about him. Getting to know Tommy the little that I did is probably one of the main reasons I pursued an Americorps VISTA placement at the Poverello Center in 2008.

While I wanted to better understand the dynamics of homelessness, another motivation was for me to challenge my own experience growing up sheltered and privileged in suburbia. Now, on the other end of seven years doing that work, my experiences have hardened and, in some ways, prejudiced me in ways I didn’t expect. Which brings me to an interesting article from a local site I just stumbled across, called Montana Report. The piece is titled Missoula Citizens Begging for a Solution to the Panhandling Problem. From the link:

Each day, at rush hour throughout Missoula, you can spot them holding their signs and begging for cash. Drivers hand everything from food, bottles of water and money out their windows as they pass, a tribute to the good will that Missoulians are famous for.

However, for every friendly Missoulian, there’s another local who has had enough of the panhandlers, citing safety issues and unsightly bums in the heart of the Garden City.

Among the fed-up and frustrated are the downtown business owners who worry about the effect that the panhandling has on their ways and means. They say that although an ordinance was passed by the Missoula city council in 2014, the police can’t do more than write a ticket.

Now, I’m going to say something that might come off as insensitive, but that famous Missoula good will is an absolute frustration that contributes to very bad things happening on the streets–things like rapes, assaults and deaths. I now enthusiastically encourage anyone I talk to to PLEASE STOP throwing money at people begging on the streets.

I also have little sympathy for the downtown businesses that benefit from alcohol sales complaining about the resulting behavior that comes from slamming Steel Reserve tall cans that cost a little over a buck for the equivalent of 3 shots of whiskey. The combination of generous-to-a-fault Missoulians and cheap, easily accessible alcohol produces a majority of the problems that we keep beating our heads against the wall to try and fix.

Here’s more from the article:

In an article in the Missoulian, the transients have also caught the eye of wealthy developers who are eyeballing sites for downtown investments. Executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, Ellen Buchanan, said one of the developers who toured downtown was “less than pleased.”

“He told me, ‘You’ve got some cleaning up to do in your downtown,’” Buchanan told the Missoulian. “This is someone who’s looking at a multi-multimillion dollar investment downtown. His concerns certainly caught my attention.”

Other disgruntled citizens include the people who use public transit. In a letter submitted to the Missoulian by Richard Winters, the Mountain Line transfer center is dangerous. Winters accused management of completely ignoring the problems panhandling has caused, which include “anti-social and unsavory” behaviors.

I remember when Buchanan related this sentiment from the wealthy German investor at a meeting–folks were quite dismayed. Obviously when millions in development gets spooked from the downtown environment, you can bet city officials pay attention, but then the scope of the problem begins to emerge, and efforts to put a dent in the problems run up against a lack of funding and political will to do what’s necessary.

The scope of the problem truly is daunting. I’ve already mentioned the lack of affordable housing, but that’s just one issue. In Missoula we have the jail bursting at the seams, nursing homes 86’ing unruly tenants, a lack of treatment options for those in poverty, the resurgence of meth, and a big gap for homeless people who aren’t clean from drugs and alcohol, putting extreme pressure on first responders and both ERs in Missoula.

The article ends with this:

It seems, for now, that the issue of panhandling is here to stay. For Missoula, this means an exercise in tolerance and empathy as the Poverello, police force and city council work to find solutions, which will benefit all.

I will agree with one thing in this statement, panhandling is here to stay. Unfortunately the notion that there is a solution which will benefit all is a fantasy. Address the addiction, and some businesses will make less money selling alcohol (something I know a few retailers who like to complain are unwilling to do). Increase enforcement, and the jail crisis worsens. Keep people out of jail without increasing treatment options, and you are putting sometimes dangerous people (to themselves and others) back on the street with no support. And affordable housing? Yeah, I’m sure landlords and real estate agents want to see housing become more affordable.

Instead, solutions will only come if compromise between opposing forces can be found and negative impacts mitigated as best as possible. Until then, these issues will continue to percolate and rise to the surface, especially in the spring when the weather warms and panhandlers bloom like lilacs.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Can We Stop Having the Same Homeless Conversation Every Year?

  1. Big Swede says:

    Maybe we should treat the homeless like this.

    Feed a man a fish and he eats for a day, deport him, and you’ll never have to feed him again.

      • great article, thanks Steve!

      • JC says:

        Nice to have a positive alternative to what isn’t working in Missoula. I don’t know if we could implement such a program, but it definitely would be a great addition to the community! I’ve been talking with some folks in the recovery community about this sort of program, and the response has been positive. Forced detox and incarceration just doesn’t help people decide to do something different with their lives. This sort of harm reduction approach gives people an opportunity to do something different once the struggle to just stay alive and loaded is minimized.

        • Steve W says:

          It was interesting what worked and what didn’t and how the program evolved to meet it’s clients needs. Harm reduction isn’t perfect but it does seem better and far more humane and far cheaper than other models.

  2. Bob Williams says:

    For the second time, the most interesting and relevant morning read of MT blogs, in my experience, comes from William Skink. Then comes the kicker from Ottawa! With a pour house!
    While in the USA we like to put people in a poor house, and punish them by sins of ommission, and commission!
    (Wondering how Sanders supporters will remain politically active?
    Might also wonder how Trump supporters will remain politically active, should Trump trump everything but the Voters!
    ((imo Trump is the SELF-MADE punisher ready to pick MASTER punishers for SCOTUS.
    How about a 6-3 SCOTUS? His supporters may now covet a 6-3 Court!)) )

  3. steve kelly says:

    And we are mostly just talking about the survivors. Suicide is no distant cousin to homelessness or addiction to drugs or alchohol. Montana is #3, and top 5 for the last 40 years. “Pro life,” yea, right.

  4. Eric says:

    Will we have the same conversation next year? Unfortunately the answer is yes. As long as there is mental illness, and addictions, and freedom, we will have a homeless population. It’s a shame. If I wanted to live homeless it would be somewhere warmer than Montana.

  5. I think we’ll continue to have the same conversation about homelessness in Missoula because the political establishment in the Zoo is largely concerned with (A) keeping their present job or (B) kissing the right asses so they can get a new and better job.

    Neither condition is conducive to actual problem solving. But it might get you a better table at the Metcalf-Mansfield Dinner. So Party On!

Leave a Reply