The Missoula City Council voted Dec. 16 to ban sitting, sleeping, lying and panhandling across much of downtown, despite taking heat from civil libertarians who accused the governing body of criminalizing homelessness.
"I feel kind of ashamed that we're even having this conversation right now," Missoula resident Tom Bassett said during a lengthy public hearing on the proposal. "I've never heard of a more discriminatory regulation, ever. This is essentially trying to ban homeless people ..."
Montana ACLU staff attorney Anna Conley echoed Bassett's concerns. She said that making more areas off-limits to loitering and panhandling would push poor people out of sight and "out of mind," rather than rooting out unsavory behavior. "These amendments will not make Missoula a safer place," Conley said.
Council's 7-3 vote in favor of the amendments means that after a 90-day warning period, soliciting and loitering within 20 feet of a downtown doorway between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. becomes a misdemeanor punishable by not more than a $100 fine. Entrances to all city footbridges and tunnels will also be off-limits.
Marking a seemingly unlikely convergence, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce sounded much like the ACLU when expressing worry that the amendments would only move problems elsewhere. In a recent letter, Chamber President Kim Latrielle and Board of Directors Chairman Shawn Clouse warn that the amendments seem to "provide a special protection for downtown businesses while leaving locations outside of the (Business Improvement District) unprotected."
Despite some opposition, the changes received overwhelming support from people who work downtown. Liquid Planet manager Chad Strickland testified that he and his employees regularly confront transients who steal, fight and use drugs. The overall environment, Strickland said, leaves Liquid Planet staffers frightened to take trash out to alley receptacles.
Dan Cederberg, who served on the Mayor's Downtown Advisory Committee, which first proposed the amendments, also argued for the changes. He said that downtown residents and businesses have invested years of work into solving the problems of crime and homelessness, such as last year's 10-year Plan to End Homelessness. He believes that characterizing supporters of stronger prohibitions as solely self interested is unfair.
"There are allegations made that we're trying to criminalize homelessness or that we're just a bunch of big bad business folks who are trying to run roughshod over the downtrodden," Cederberg said. "I take strong exceptions to those kinds of statements."