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Begging for change

City considers stricter laws against downtown panhandlers

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Ten months ago, a transient wielding a cane chased Jenna Smith from her Higgins Avenue clothing store to her car, which was parked in a lot between Pine and Broadway. Smith was eight months pregnant and terrified.

"I was able to get to my car," she says. "He was banging his cane on my car."

Smith owns Cloth and Crown, a women's clothing boutique. After the incident last winter, she filed a police report and bought pepper spray for all of her employees. The additional precautions help assure the safety of Smith and her staff, but they don't alleviate an increasing number of recent problems stemming from illegal and unsavory behavior among transients downtown.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Glen Harley Stephens Jr., who says he’s been homeless for five years, sits on the steps of the Simon Law Office on Ryman Street. A new proposal would limit where Stephens can sit, sleep or lie down on city sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

"It was worse this year," says Missoula Communications Director Ginny Merriam, who helps field concerns from locals about problems downtown and coordinates a commission tasked with finding solutions to those complaints. "People perceived that it was a lot worse."

Almost daily, Smith says she and her neighbors find feces and broken bottles left outside their shops by a small yet costly and oftentimes destructive segment of the local homeless population. Smith says she can no longer keep flowers near her entryway because when she does, they're knocked over and uprooted. "We find syringes in the doorway," she adds.

According to counts conducted by Missoula Downtown Ambassadors, the city's urban core hosted more panhandlers this year than at any time since 2010. Law enforcement and city officials attribute the influx in part to this summer's Rainbow Gathering held outside Jackson. The gathering drew nearly 10,000 people, a portion of whom stayed in Missoula before and after the event.

Smith isn't so much worried about how the transients landed on her doorstep, but rather how to curb their troublesome behavior. That's why she supports a proposal unveiled during an Oct. 1 meeting of Mayor John Engen's Downtown Advisory Commission that aims to further limit loitering and panhandling in the city's urban core. Specifically, the proposal seeks to ban sitting, sleeping or lying on downtown sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

"I love that idea," Smith says.

The commission is also discussing the merits of prohibiting panhandling—in addition to sitting, sleeping or lying—on or within 20 feet of pedestrian footbridges and pedestrian tunnels.

For the past six years, the advisory commission has played a pivotal role shaping downtown. First called the Panhandling Working Group, it formed in 2007 to address complaints about threatening and aggressive behavior. Composed of community service providers, law enforcement, business owners and a Missoula City Council representative, the commission crafted the city's Aggressive Solicitation and the Pedestrian Interference acts, both of which passed in 2009. The ordinances prohibit panhandling and loitering in specific areas, such as near doorways and ATMs.

The commission was also largely responsible for launching Missoula's 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, which was released last year.

Missoula Crime Prevention Officer and commission member Rob Scheben suggested the most recent changes. He believes the amendments will leave law enforcement better equipped to combat gaps in the existing law and, in doing so, ease the worries of locals like Smith.

"I don't want people changing their behaviors to have to walk to the (Motor Vehicle Division) or walk to lunch," Scheben says.

Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener serves on the commission and believes the measure preventing solicitation on and around pedestrian footbridges may be warranted to preserve community safety. "I get enough people contacting me about the Northside Pedestrian Bridge to understand that it's being used in ways that weren't intended for in its construction," Wiener says.

Wiener worries, however, that blanket prohibitions against loitering, such as those now being debated by the commission, could trigger unintended consequences. "To make a uniform exclusion area would effectively put large portions of the business district off limits," he says. "I wonder where the people who are on the streets are going to go."

Poverello Center Director Eran Fowler Pehan echoes Wiener's concerns.

"I don't inherently think that any kind of sit-lie ban is inappropriate," she says. "I just think we have to be really thoughtful about if something like that does get put into place, what does that mean? What are the potential implications?"

The commission is also discussing streamlining existing panhandling prohibitions the Missoula City Council authorized in 2009. These include the so-called "buffer zones" recommended by the commission and approved by council in 2009 that prohibit lying and sleeping within 12 feet of a doorway, panhandling within six feet of an entrance and soliciting for money within 20 feet of a vehicle. Scheben says these can be tough to police. "It makes it difficult not only for people to understand it, but it also makes it difficult for us to enforce," he says.

That's the primary reason Scheben is asking the commission—and ultimately the Missoula City Council—to create a blanket 20-foot buffer zone that prohibits loitering or solicitation around vehicles, doorways and ATMs. "Our goal is to make it so that everything is at a uniform number," Scheben says.

If a daytime loitering ban were implemented, the 20-foot zone would take effect after hours.

As the commission deliberates the changes, its members emphasize that the city doesn't want to penalize all transients, but rather bad behavior exhibited by a few. City leaders are also quick to say that they will increasingly seek public input on proposed changes to loitering and solicitation laws during the coming months. When the commission gains consensus among its membership the city council will be asked to actively vet the amendments. Council must sign off on any new restrictions before they become law.

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