Removing Park Benches Isn’t Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, It’s The Legacy Of Engen’s Leadership On Homelessness

by Travis Mateer

Before I get to the strategic action of Parks and Rec to remove benches in a park near the seasonal emergency homeless warehouse on Johnson Street, I’d like to share a story of how I used this concept in my work at the shelter to make homeless people disappear. Utilizing these methods to protect spa customers from the visual evidence of homelessness is a big reason I was up for downtown person of the year in 2015.

The spa I assisted was on Main Street, near the Union Club. The problem they had was daytime evidence of a nighttime sleep-spot for someone on the streets of our liberal community. Using the skills I picked up from the crime prevention officer at the time, Rob Scheben, I told the spa manager what to do: move the storage container.

You see, the spa had a storage container behind the building, and it was placed right up close to back of the building, making a space that provided some cover and protection. Moving the storage container back removed that cover and protection. I even picked up some of the trash around the area because I have EXCELLENT customer service skills.

When I talk about Engen’s legacy on homelessness–formalized 9 years ago with a 10 year plan to end it–I sometimes mention having been quoted in that plan. I decided to find the PDF and screen-shot this regime’s use of me back when I was a sucker spouting housing-first platitudes and referencing Million Dollar Murray.

Yep, there I am, referencing one of the “frequent flyers” I helped triage during business hours. That seems like a LONG time ago now. But then I read articles like the one linked above, and it all comes rushing back.

Missoula Parks and Recreation recently removed picnic tables from Montana Rail Link Park because they are being “misused,” according to department head Donna Gaukler.

Unhoused people were apparently using the picnic tables, as they are under a roof. MRL Park is close to the emergency winter shelter for the homeless on Johnson Street.

Two years ago, near the main shelter on West Broadway, a different tentacle of local government–our Mountain Line bus service–removed benches at two covered bus stops that just happened to be by the homeless shelter. While the justification was exactly the same, the main shelter isn’t seasonal, so the benches never returned.

If you have legitimate disability needs, well, too bad.

One Franklin to the Fort resident who opposes removing the tables, David Ley, recently told the Missoulian he is a disabled veteran and likes to sit when he has his dogs at the park. MRL also includes an off-leash dog park.

“When Winter comes around, I like to sit under the pavilion if it’s snowing or freezing rain or something, but they just removed everything from under the pavilion,” Ley said.

“What really got me invested in this was that I saw it as some pseudo-classist insult.”

Whoa, David Ley, don’t be getting all fancy with your pseudo-discourse. There are potential crimes, and there are crime-prevention designs, and there are Donna Gauklers available to school you on what the National Recreation and Park Association has to say about what this design concept has to offer:

According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, that term is defined as “a plan or project that uses specific design principles to work toward deterring criminal behavior while positively impacting the image and usage of an area or facility.”

While the removal of benches provides short-term relief for SOME daytime users of this park, nothing is mentioned in this article about the existence of Tax Increment Fido, a partially TIF-funded sculpture that is so ugly and offensive in its use of TIF (intended once upon a time to address “blight”), it may lead to criminal mischief, like vandalism.

Here’s a look at what thousands of TIF dollars can create:

No, not ALL the money came from TIF. Just some of it. I think. The article from the time explained that THE WHOLE PARK was developed with TIF money, and some percentage was set aside for public art, but it didn’t cover the cost of Fido–I mean “Scratch”–so MRA kicked in more:

In this case, the TIF money designated through the Percent for Public Art ordinance wasn’t enough scratch to pay for Scratch. So the Montana Redevelopment Agency, which administers the TIF dollars, put up another $12,500 in TIF funds to cover the rest of the cost.

So, in summary, no more winter-time benches at Rail Link Park means crimes of passion against public art and crimes of existence for the “unhoused” can be prevented.

Any questions?

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 Removing Park Benches Isn’t Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, It’s The Legacy Of Engen’s Leadership On Homelessness

  1. “Out of sight, out of mind” has been a feature of the Engen Homeless Policy from the get-go. In India and scores of other countries, the unhoused are visible for all to see, presenting a continuous reminder of social inequities. The gentrification railroad requires “sanitation” of the visual landscape of the business district. Long after the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down ordinances criminalizing sleeping on city property, sidewalks, etc. when there were insufficient shelters for unhoused persons, Missoula still had ubiquitous signage downtown warning that loiterers would be subject to arrest, jail and fines. The ordinance remains on the books, and its validity depends on whether the city has adequate shelter space. Given the violence, mental illness and drug issues at the Johnson Street shelter, and elsewhere in Missoula’s unhoused archipelago, that’s a highly questionable proposition. Similarly, the Reserve Street encampment is condoned in order to keep the ordinance viable and keep the sidewalks and benches of downtown free of imagery that offends the sensibilities of the upper crust folks being drawn here like iron filings to a magnet. Rather than promoting construction of The Drifts and Berquist/Wagners, we should be directing such funds toward community mental health treatment, addiction recovery services, legal car-camping areas, low-cost housing such as mobile homes, and so on. Ironic it is that moving the unhoused out of sight relieves the visual (nay, spiritual) “blight” afflicting us, but it is after that shell game that TIF enters the picture. For much less than is wastefully and corruptly expended on farcical “affordable” housing projects and pocket-lining of big developers and real estate investors and speculators, some actual progress could be made, instead of the pathetic “net zero” objective of the “Ten Year Plan (about to enter year ten) to end Homelessness in Missoula.”

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