The Struggle to End Willful Ignorance

by William Skink

Last night I toasted the departure of one of the many selfless people who work at Missoula’s homeless shelter. During the night’s revelry, I made sure to show them the uphill battle we face to educate ignorant people who say ignorant things, like this:

People aren’t coming from all over the West because our downtown businesses sell booze, they’re coming because the Pov gives free food and beds for up to 60 days. Going downtown during the day after chore time and getting drunk is what many are doing, I have no doubt.

How many are responsible homeless and/or working poor, and how many are bums, true bums in every sense of the word? You worked there, how many? And how does this benefit Missoula? Currently it’s not, and that’s why we have the need for more police and the Florence Building in an uproar.

The Pov contributes to that problem.

Homeless people exist in Missoula because a shelter provides temporary housing and food. Get rid of the services, and the homeless people will magically go away, the thinking goes.

For those invested in this narrative, no amount of evidence to the contrary will change their mind. They think homeless people are like bears, so deprive them of a food source and they won’t pester us.

Most of the ignorance on display in my last post is easily disprovable. For example, this incredibly stupid comment put forth regarding transient issues being somehow unique to Missoula:

I feel the main problem is our homeless shelter’s policies which draw them in. We built it, and they come. Strangely, many other Montana cities with homeless shelters – such as in Helena, the numbers of which I put up last night – are not having these problems.

Why is it just Missoula?

Spending a few seconds googling “Billings transient problem” quickly dispels the erroneous assertion that Missoula is the only town in Montana dealing with these issues. Going further with my exhaustive research, I spent a few more minutes to see if a similar locale had similar issues, and sure enough I found this:

“Tourists have started posting on social media sites that they will not come back to Ashland due to their experiences downtown,” explains Seffinger, listing off grievances from public urination to snapping dogs. “It is important to have this image of Ashland corrected. Our tax base is an important part of being able to provide the services that make our town special and able to give to all our citizens.”

At the same time, Seffinger decidedly recognizes that the City has both a responsibility and an ability to help solve the problem—which does not just mean sweeping away homeless.

Several years ago, camping bans and sit-lie ordinances were presented by elected official as popular solutions; in Ashland, though, those practices pushed up against a more general feeling that there are more considerate and sustainable solutions. In 2010, after police used the camping ban to chase homeless men and women out of Lithia Park, protestors filled downtown for a week with signs reading “It’s not a crime to sleep” and “homeless but human.” As routinely, those ordinances brush up against constitutional limitations and are wiped off the books. Cities like Portland and San Francisco have abandoned those ordinances as a means to managing homeless populations, and in recent years have been searching more for long-term and considerate solutions.

Sound familiar?

I’ll leave it there, for now. I’m sure more ignorance will be on display in the comments, so stay tuned…

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
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1 Response to The Struggle to End Willful Ignorance

  1. The homeless problem is everywhere. I remember seeing seeing people feed a parking meter in Portland so they could sleep there, and I remember serving food to a person in tears because they used to host fundraisers for the Samaritan house but now depended on it. The problems are complex and wide ranging.

    I learned of a friends homelessness by reading a story/ obituary in the Billings Outpost about a homeless man who served others in the community. Six months later I heard his voice on an archived Yellowstone Public Radio program about the city’s attempt to understand the program.
    Unfortunately, neither of those are still online.

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