Last Sunday, as I was loading cardboard to take to the recycling center—something I totally do every week and not just since my girlfriend moved in—a woman interrupted me to ask for money. I was vexed, partly because I had spent the afternoon cutting myself with a box knife, and partly because I recognized her as the lady who keeps pooping in my yard.
I was most vexed, though, because she did not recognize me. Although I identified the return of Poop Lady as a sign of spring, and although I have seen and even spoken to her under conditions more intimate than I have shared with anyone except once my college roommate, evidently I am no one to her. She saw me only as a source of spare change. And so I became angry at Poop Lady, and considered myself mistreated by her, right before I remembered that I am the biggest jerk in the world.
I mention this because it is June and the summer homeless are in, and because I never resented a homeless person until I came to Missoula. Missoula has a homeless problem. It is a problem because there are a lot of street people here, and because we ignore them in a town where acknowledging one another is pretty much a way of life.
When I lived in New York, I experienced the homeless as an environmental feature not unlike Starbucks. I wished there were fewer Starbucks around and eventually resolved to stop giving money to them, but I was never mad at Starbucks. When I saw Starbucks on the train or passed out in, um, Starbucks, I accepted it as a sad but unavoidable consequence of modern society. I was in the city, after all.
In this mountain valley, on the other hand, homeless people feel disconcertingly less like a social consequence and more like human beings. I recognize many of them, and the ones I don't recognize seem like newcomers to an already crowded party. And even though I am a totally cool guy who contributes all sorts of fun stuff to this party, including my willingness to defecate only in specified locations, these homeless people treat me as if I am no one at all. They just keep asking me for money, reminding me that my professed ethics have pretty much nothing to do with how I live my daily life.
I wish they would go away. They make me feel bad, even though—but also because—I am unwilling to do anything about them. I feel like Missoula should be somehow exempt from homeless problems. Evidently, I am not alone.
Last October, a working group of city and county government officials, community organizers and representatives from local businesses published "Reaching Home: Missoula's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness." The report's first page estimates the number of homeless in Missoula at "at least 200 people" on any given day.
I question that estimate, especially given the following sentence from page 25 of the same report: "In January 2012, 516 homeless people were counted in Missoula County; 266 were individuals and 250 were families." That number seems low, too. If there's anything sadder than a homeless family, it's a homeless family that consists of only one person. But even if we accept that there are only 500 homeless people in Missoula, we are acting as if they did not exist.
The current Poverello Center can accommodate 100. Two weeks ago, the City Board of Adjustment denied the new Poverello an exemption from city ordinances that will require it to build a bigger parking lot instead of a bigger courtyard. Most Pov clients don't drive. But Vice Chair Michael Kopitzke voted against an exemption, saying that the Pov had failed to show sufficient hardship. "We need to have something a little more concrete," he told the Independent's Jessica Mayrer.
His words might well be the city motto. As long as homelessness remains an abstraction and not a family sleeping outdoors in January, we can pretend that parking is our biggest problem. As long as I regard the Poop Lady as a seasonal nuisance and not a woman who likes my lilac bush because it reduces the odds of someone attacking her while she defecates, I can think of Missoula as a magical place where we all look out for one another.
It is a place where we look out for one another, but the looking out does not happen by magic. We make Missoula a town where people care about other people, and we are not doing that for the people who live on our streets.
I'm not sure exactly how many homeless people there are in Missoula. I know the Poop Lady, and the guy who lives under the Madison footbridge, and the big guy who collects change from the ones who beg in front of Albertson's. I know there are enough to irritate me, but not so many that I don't notice one more. There are sufficient street people in this town to remind me that I am not living up to my values, yet they are few enough that I can forget they're out there. Then I see one, and then suddenly there are too many to ignore.
Dan Brooks writes about about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.