Crime, Addiction And A Convenient Homeless Shelter Scapegoat

by William Skink

It’s unfortunate that with all the stirring, well articulated Westside testimonials about drugs and crime and, apparently, voyeurism, at City Council last night, the picture used by the Missoula Current is one of the Poverello Center.

It won’t matter that correlation is not causation, meaning that drug abuse has been sky-rocketing across the state and nation the last few years, coinciding with the relocation of Missoula’s homeless shelter. If people don’t feel safe it’s pointless to point out the logical fallacy of assuming moving the shelter to West Broadway created the problems Westside residents are now rightfully concerned about.

Since the Missoula Current made the editorial decision to focus visually on the homeless shelter and not, say, the casino or dirtbag motels, I feel compelled to point out some obvious things about our community’s homeless shelter:

The staff at the Poverello Center don’t have the power to arrest people like the police and Sheriff’s department do. The Poverello Center doesn’t sell alcohol, like the casino and Zip Trip do, and they don’t deal drugs like the drug dealers do. Unlike the motels, the Poverello Center has a zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol.

Like the jail, the Poverello Center does have an overcrowding problem. And like the rest of the state of Montana, the Pov is drowning in the dire need being exacerbated by multiple factors beyond their control, like budget cuts that decimated supportive services.

Last week, at Missoula’s City Club, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox spoke about the “frightening level” of substance abuse happening across the state. Fox tossed out the following figures from the annual crime report:

According to the State Crime Lab’s annual report, Montana saw a 375 percent increase in meth found in postmortem cases from 2011 to 2017. Over the same period, it experienced a 324 percent increase in meth found in DUI cases.

Figures related to other substance abuse issues have also seen a dramatic increase.

“This report confirms what we already knew – Montana is in the midst of a substance abuse crisis,” Fox said. “The astronomical increase in meth and heroin offenses have placed added strain on the crime lab, as well as on our courts, our jails, our foster care systems. Child abuse and neglect cases have gone through the roof.”

Yes, Tim, we know it’s bad. And many of us know it’s going to get worse because of the cuts. So what is the plan to address this crisis?

Saying the state can’t wait any longer to act, Fox and community stakeholders have gathered to explore state-based solutions aimed at policy. The issue zeroes in on both drugs and alcohol and looks at everything from treatment to early intervention, education and monitoring.

The resulting report was released last September and will serve as a blueprint moving forward, starting with the 2019 Legislature.

“It has helped us better identify how state resources are used to target substance abuse and identify gaps and inefficiencies,” Fox said. “We now have a more complete understanding of how our state can better align efforts to enhance the necessary communications and improve the outcomes for those suffering from addiction.”

While the Attorney General’s Office has partnered with other agencies including local government, the Department of Corrections and the Montana Health Care Foundation, Fox said government alone can’t solve the problem.

Rather, he said, it will require partnerships with the private sector and area nonprofits.

If you don’t know how to decipher political weasel speech, allow me to interpret: Government will keep up its punishing power to incarcerate, and for everything else, good luck nonprofits and the private sector.

Really, everything comes down to funding and how resources are allocated. Will law enforcement leverage this to get more resources? Will more law enforcement be effective if the jails are full? Is the County willing to give up the money it makes from the state by housing state inmates in the County clink?

Instead of these kinds of questions, one initial reaction from a City Council person, lone-wolf conservative Jesse Ramos, is to claim TIF funds intended to address blight created more blight by helping the new shelter get built:

It is worth noting that the Poverello Center was partially paid for using TIF funding. TIF funding is only allowed to be used, according to state law, for the purposes of eliminating blight. 

Last night I challenged my fellow council members and the mayor to find someone in the surrounding neighborhoods who thought their neighborhood was less blighted after the Poverello Center was opened.

It was great seeing so many folks come and voice their concerns last night as a collective community, thank you for taking the time to do so. I am with you all 100%. 19 concerned citizens testified last night who were affected by this problem, and that is POWERFUL.

We need to stand with the folks who no longer feel safe in their own homes and work to find a compassionate solution to this problem. No one should live in fear in their own neighborhood.

This is not lacking in compassion, this is showing compassion to the citizens who no longer feel safe in their own homes. We need to act.

What Jesse Ramos should do is ask the owners of Imagine Brewery, Tias Big Sky and Western Cider why they opened up businesses AFTER the Poverello Center relocated. I understand the need to be critical of the TIF candy MRA throws around to needy hotel developers and struggling art parks, but in this case a community resource this community VERY MUCH NEEDS was built with that assistance, and that is a good thing.

So, what’s next? Probably some placating stalling tactics from Engen, like meetings with stake holders blah blah blah, then the weather will turn cold and the problem will become less visible again. The Mayor and the Police Chief will say they will increase patrols in the area, and encourage anyone who sees something to call 911. And nothing much on the ground will change.

Eventually I think gentrification will transform this part of Missoula and these issues will move somewhere else. The exploitive owners of motels like the Colonial and the Sleepy Inn will cash in and something nicer will be built. You see, drug-fueled crime can actually be a great opportunity for developers, driving down prices to bargain levels.

I have heard developers like the Farran Groups are just biding their time.

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 Crime, Addiction And A Convenient Homeless Shelter Scapegoat

  1. At the same time the MRA is bailing the city out with $750,000 URD payments to make the newest round of tax increases more palatable, the agency is going ahead with a $110,000 plan to remodel a waterfront park, though they admit it’ll probably cost $500,000. MRA is also set to get $34 million in funding through the city budget this year, if not more.

    Here’s what the Missoula Current said today about the efforts on the river:

    “Conservation crews with Parks and Recreation have already begun removing vegetation and noxious weeds, not only to restore the island’s riparian habitat, but to disrupt the island’s use by transients by eliminating hiding spots.

    “There’s a lot of people living down there, and of those people living down there – there’s not too many now – some have become very aggressive,” Behan said. “There’s been more police cars down there and time for the police to deal with things.”

    Over the past three years, Behan said, the island has seen a steady increase in drug use and criminal activity associated with transients. Conservation crews have encountered hazardous materials, including medical waste, he said.

    Restoring the island to public use and opening up the vegetation is expected to help resolve the problem. Caras Park faced a similar challenge before it was redeveloped many years ago.”

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