Bummed Out

Is panhandling downtown getting out of hand?



If there’s a pedestrian equivalent to road rage, it’s beginning to make itself felt on the sidewalks of downtown Missoula: That unpleasant stirring of emotions ranging from frustration to fear over the increasing number of requests by transients for handouts in downtown Missoula.

Panhandling in Missoula is as old as the railroad itself, which has carried many of the transients into Missoula each spring in time for the arrival of warm weather. And as most local residents are by now well aware, the proximity to Missoula of this year’s Rainbow Gathering in the Big Hole area—an annual event that since 1972 has been combining the ideals of ’60s alternative living, New Age spirituality and the Constitutional right of free assembly—has brought a fresh crop of people to the downtown area who, for lack of a better description, seem to have more time than money on their hands.

Food banks and shelters throughout the region have already begun feeling the pinch. The Poverello Center reports that the output of food from their food pantry has nearly doubled since April. That increase comes on top of the already rising demand for food and shelter services from the Pov, which served nearly 7,000 more meals in 1999 than it did in 1998.

The same story holds true for the Missoula Food Bank, which, in order to ensure that the needs of its local residents are met, was recently forced to implement a policy of asking clients for IDs before giving them food, and is only providing perishable items like bread, produce and milk to those who are from outside Montana.

“We don’t want to discriminate or label the Rainbow people as transients who are sucking us dry,” explains Jennifer Twyman, food recovery coordinator for the Missoula Food Bank. “But we also don’t want to not have enough food for the local people who are really in need. It’s a Catch-22. It’s hard.”

For sure, Missoula’s transient problem is a perennial one, and not just tied to the arrival of the Rainbow Gathering hordes. But some downtown merchants have begun to express concern about what effect it will have on this year’s summer tourist dollars.

“We have to be careful about the perception we give out,” says Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association, an organization representing nearly 300 downtown businesses. “We don’t want to give the perception that we as business owners don’t care about people who are down and out. But the flip side of that is, more often than not, these people choose to live this lifestyle, and it’s not because they’re physically or mentally handicapped.”

McCarthy points out that quick solutions to the problem, from putting out donation cups for the Poverello Center on shop counters, to hosing off the sidewalks several times a day, can have mixed results—and send mixed messages.

“We’ve talked about putting signs in the windows that say, ‘Please don’t give to the panhandlers,’ but what kind of image does that create?” asks McCarthy. “We’ve talked about handing out information cards when somebody asks for money that lists our social service agencies, their phone number and address. But apparently, that’s been tried in other communities, and all it does is contribute to the litter problem.”

According to Bob Weaver, assistant police chief for the Missoula Police Department, complaints about panhandling in the downtown have been on the rise in the last month, though as he points out, “They’re citizens like anyone else. They can come and go as they please. They’re scruffy, they make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable, and some people don’t think it’s right, but it isn’t against the law.”

In fact, Missoula does have a panhandling ordinance, meant to address more aggressive and intimidating behavior than requests for spare change. Weaver admits that due to an untimely combination of injuries, retirements and new officers who are not yet street-qualified, the Missoula Police Department has had to cut back its downtown bicycle patrol from four officers to just one.

While some downtown merchants say privately that they would welcome a tougher panhandling ordinance, others question how effective it would be at solving the problem.

“Missoula is a fairly liberal community and there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming desire to add another city ordinance to the books, especially when we don’t have enforcement of our current ordinances,” says McCarthy.

There is, of course, the whole issue of whether panhandling laws are even constitutional. Only a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Chicago anti-loitering ordinance aimed at curtailing gang activity by requiring people to disperse if their intent was “to remain in one place with no apparent purpose.”

“The Supreme Court found that truly there are some things that you cannot make criminal, no matter how annoying they are,” says Beth Brenneman of the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Perhaps the more philosophical question is, why does a transient sitting on the corner make us feel uncomfortable? Regardless of whether we empathize with his plight—or lifestyle, as the case may be—this is likely one problem that won’t be solved by a legislative body.

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