Montana Cities Face Delicate Balancing Act With Growing Homeless Populations

Sep 15, 2015

The U.S Department of Justice last month said local laws prohibiting public camping and sleeping amounts to criminalizing homelessness.

The agency is siding with homeless advocates who are suing the city of Boise, Idaho. Local officials there defend the ordinance saying it protects public health and safety.

The homeless issue is increasingly sparking civic skirmishes across the United States.

A snapshot-survey conducted last year showed a 25%  increase in the homeless population in Billings since 2013.

"We've been seeing some of the effects of the Bakken oil fields and some of the volatility in those areas. We also have a tight housing market here. I would say that a lack of affordable housing is an issue," says Lisa Harmon, the executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance.

Billings is walking a fine line between caring for their poorest and most vulnerable while also trying to curb aggressive panhandling and other nuisance - sometimes dangerous - behavior.

Last week a Billings woman reported a man grabbed her by the neck as she walked along a local trail. She escaped only after knocking him into a ravine with her coffee mug.

Credit Flickr user Ed Yourdon (BY-NC-SA-2)

Police think the attacker came from a nearby transient camp.

In Missoula there were a few reports of homeless women being sexually assaulted this summer.

The most recent available data says Missoula’s homeless population numbers anywhere from 400 to 500 people.

Linda McCarthy is director of the Missoula Downtown Partnership. McCarthy says that on the one hand we must be empathetic towards people who are genuinely down on their luck.

"We know from personal experience - you have a death in the family or you get diagnosed with cancer or something like that. It can devastate your finances. It can devastate your family. It's easy for people to fall out on their luck."

McCarthy also acknowledges there are people living on Missoula’s streets who have less-than-honorable motivations.

"People who come to Missoula to take advantage of our friendly residents and tourists. They're coming here to make a buck or to pick up something that maybe they can't get somewhere else. We want people to be held accountable for their behaviors and we want them to be respectful and kind."

The National Law Center on Homelessness says it’s common to find fewer available shelter beds than homeless people across the country. Ordinances banning camping in public such as the one being challenged in Boise are becoming popular legal remedies.

The Department ofJustice's legal opinion has little to no bearing here in Montana, according to Billings city attorney Brent Brooks.

"We cannot in Montana penalize vagrancy. So, I think it's pretty clear that by this statute - and I think by case law as well - you can't penalize someone for just hanging out; just being somewhere as long as they're not committing any other offense. Like if they're trespassing on private property, engaging in disorderly conduct, screaming, yelling, challenging people to fight, these sorts of things."

Travis Mateer leads the Missoula Poverello Center homeless shelter's outreach team. His staff works with some of the toughest cases on the street. Mateer describes these people as "shelter resistant."

"Often times because of substance abuse issues, untreated mental health issues - folks that just don't, even in a nicer facility - feel comfortable with all the stimulus and the amount of people that we're serving. So, there still are some challenges."

The Pov can't serve people under the influence of drugs or alcohol. That means homeless addicts have a difficult time getting help, creating problems for everyone.

Police officer Tony Nichols sees those problems every day. Nichols helps patrol downtown Billings, specifically focusing on transient-related complaints.

The city is trying out a new program that gives a choice to repeat open container-violators; either get an open container citation or meet with a licensed addictions counselor.

"Probably 60-percent take the open container. I think we've got 15 that we've enrolled into treatment now through this program which we just started July first. It's close to half and half, but most of them will probably take the open citation at this point."

I asked if most cited don't pay the fine associated with their citation, if they basically tear it up and throw it away?

"Yeah, pretty much," Nichols answered. "They generally won't show up for their court appearance and then a warrant will come out and they'll eventually get picked up and they'll have to answer to it."

Nichols says the addictions counseling alternative is a good start, but still provides lots of opportunity for relapse once back out on the street. He thinks more transitional housing would help.

The director of Missoula's Poverello Center agrees. Eran Fowler Pehan points out 11% of people who become chronically homeless due to addiction consume over 50% of available resources for homeless services. Pehan thinks a "wet housing" option that allows residents to drink would be a huge help.

"Programs that do this do see over a period of time that people drink less and less as they stabilize and get into housing and that provides positive benefits for the entire community," says Pehan.

But if cities continue to offer more services won't that attract more transients who want to take advantage of them?

Lisa Harmon of the Billings Downtown Association doesn't think so.

"I think it's naive. I think that our homeless are already here. We need to have these services. I don't think that making our services the best that they can be is going to attract more."

Missoula's Linda McCarthy says homelessness is a complicated problem with no easy answers. But she says everybody can at least help a little by not caving-in to panhandlers. She says writing a check to various service organizations is a far better alternative to throwing a few dollars to someone begging on the sidewalk.