Andy Roy is not an addiction counselor. He’s a cop on a bike who spends his days dealing with the aftermath of alcohol addictions permeating Missoula’s transient population.
“I am here to say the supermajority of transients that I deal with that cause the majority of our problems – yes, they are classified as alcoholics,” he explained one gloomy morning outside the Missoula police station. “But they are not Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress syndrome. They are not sitting there talking to people that don’t exist.”
“In my opinion, they don’t display any mental health issues. They like to drink,” he adds.
He’s not jaded. Roy is simply realistic. He knows that he’s not going to prevent transients from drinking, and he doesn’t attempt to. The few who’ve said they wanted help for their addiction have quickly faltered.
So his job is to intercede when drinking becomes a public problem.
Roy works with the local transient population with a particular finesse and treats them as individuals with surprising ease. He knows their names, their history, their partners, their friends and, in some cases, their enemies.
“It’s like having a family of 10 teenage daughters,” he said. “There is drama all the time.”
The term “drama” is a bit of a misnomer. Earlier this year, he was bitten by a transient who became irate when Roy confiscated her open container full of liquor. Roy had a welt on his skin for weeks.
In a separate more recent incident, a transient man was assaulted – and his wheelchair stolen – in a likely random act of violence in a downtown alley. The man was so drunk he could do nothing to repel the attack, or to remember much about his attackers.
Though accosting police officers and reporting attacks tends to be unusual in the population Roy works with, the incidents underscore the addiction that leads to the bulk of the problems downtown.
“They have access to food,” he said. “They have access to health care. They have an endless amount of people giving them money for their alcohol. And so they’re like, why (stop)?”
Pedestrians provide them money, but they don’t see the disruptiveness it causes downtown, he explained. That money doesn’t go to basic needs, it goes to alcohol, he said.
“Would you give a bottle of whiskey to an alcoholic?” he said. “It’s the same thing. The principle is exactly the same thing.”
That sentiment is echoed by Travis Mateer, the Poverello Center’s outreach coordinator, who also patrols downtown on a bike, albeit with a slightly different motivation.
He said alcohol is the biggest problem with this particular population and adds that people should not give money to panhandlers. Roy and other law enforcement officers are “limited in what they can do,” he explained.
Mateer says Missoula needs more collaboration and perhaps more resources than the traditional trio of dry (sober) homeless shelters and soup kitchens, law enforcement and emergency health care. Perhaps a 24-hour drop-in center or a wet shelter option may be what’s needed for people like Johnny Connell, who was requesting an ambulance on one recent morning.
Roy was dispatched to the Mountain Line transfer station, where Connell had been hunched over in apparent pain for about an hour.
Connell couldn’t describe where the pain was or how it felt.
“What happened that you need an ambulance?” Roy asked.
“I can’t move,” he replied.
He said his ribs, face, head and legs hurt, but did not reply when Roy asked how he came to have the injuries or if he had been drinking that morning.
Connell cried in pain when the emergency responders arrived and attempted to examine him. They eventually loaded him onto a stretcher and transferred him by ambulance to the hospital.
There’s no data on how much calls like these cost, Roy explained, but it wears on the limited resources of emergency responders like firefighters, medical professionals, police and the ambulance service.
“Per week, I couldn’t even tell you,” he said. “It’s gotta to be thousands and thousands of dollars.”
“It’s an ugly cycle and it’s got to be expensive,” Roy added.
When Roy started as Missoula’s downtown bicycle officer in the spring of last year, there hadn’t been an officer throughout the winter. The transient population was comfortable breaking the city ordinances, he said. And some did so without thinking twice.
There were well-established transient camps near the Orange Street I-90 ramp – complete with multi-roomed makeshift shacks and bags upon bags of trash. And transients walked boldly down the street drinking from open beer cans.
That kind of behavior kept Roy on his toes throughout the spring.
Thanks to Roy’s presence downtown so far this year, this spring and summer haven’t been as bad.
But like the weather, it’s heating up.
For one thing, the transients he classifies as the “Rainbow Kids” are back in Missoula. Last year, the annual Rainbow Gathering was held in Beaverhead County, and many attendees stopped – and lingered – in Missoula for a good chunk of the summer.
This year, they are back because they liked Missoula so much, Roy explained.
And there are still the particular hangouts the year-round population tends to frequent. Roy pointed out the little nooks throughout downtown that are usually sheltered by large bushes. In one alcove there were a few sleeping bags and a chess board. In another space, near the river, a few blankets and junk food wrappers littered the public space.
Then, of course, there is the space on the side of Jasper Law Firm that sits directly in front of the Poverello Center, where transients who are drinking can hang out until a meal is served at the center, Lance Jasper explained.
Jasper said the majority of people who use his lawn are respectful, but there are about 10 percent who cause the majority of the problems.
“It’s really hard for us to call the cops unless something really bad is happening,” he explained. “After we call, there can be retaliation and it can be really gross.”
And by really gross Jasper means some people will smear feces on his windows or urinate on his yard.
Jasper has tried alternative methods to curb the behavior – like installing sprinklers that go off in the early morning. But when he installed them, they were broken or used as showers – oftentimes leaving their unmentionables scattered across the yard – much to his dismay.
A fence he constructed shared a similar fate.
Jasper said there’s the financial cost of about $200 he spends each month cleaning up after the transients who use his yard.
“It’s like having an electricity bill – having to deal with the Pov,” Jasper said. “It may vary a couple times a month, but every month you are going to have to spend that money.”
Jasper praises the efforts of the Poverello’s staff, but he said the Poverello’s move this fall to a new facility on Broadway and Cedar Street can’t come soon enough.
It’s too soon to tell if the move will make a significant impact on what Roy sees downtown. After all – many transients want to be where foot traffic is the heaviest and pockets are the deepest.
Roy said the city’s aggressive panhandling ordinance, originally passed in the winter and then amended in the spring, is having a positive impact downtown now. In its current form, the ordinance restricts people from sleeping or lying on pedestrian bridges and restricts panhandling within 10 feet of downtown entrances. They also can’t sleep or lie down on the sidewalks in the district from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
But Roy added that the ordinance has a lot of bark, but no bite. He can’t arrest people for simply breaking city ordinances.
“I could write (Harley) 50 tickets a day,” he said. “Will he go to court? No.”
Roy has clear boundaries in dealing with the street population, but he is not black and white when dealing with individual problems. He adapts his tone and technique depending on the person he is dealing with.
For example, there’s the aforementioned Harley, who claims he was a logger in Idaho before his wife left him. On this particular day, Harley is sitting in the middle of the sidewalk across from the police station.
Roy says that if he were to politely ask Harley to move, he would respond with vulgarities.
“I have to go up to Harley and say move your (expletive) (expletive) now,” Roy explained. “If a person were to hear that, they would say the police are harsh.”
“But that’s how we communicate,” he said. “That’s what he responds to.”
As he rides along, he runs into several individuals who flagrantly admit to him they are going to buy marijuana and smoke it. Roy responds if he catches them with it, he will take it away. Another man, Jake, shamelessly flirts with Roy and asks to be his “houseboy.”
Roy avoids answering the invitation directly and responds he will have to discuss the matter with his wife.
In the casual banter between Roy and those individuals who choose to make Missoula’s downtown their home, there’s no mention of the fact that they have been at the heart of a heated debate regarding the implementation of the panhandling ordinance.
There is, however, discussion of alcohol, the trouble it leads to and attempts at staying sober.
On a particularly slow June morning, Mateer approaches Roy and a few other school resource officers who have been assigned to the downtown streets for portions of the summer. He’s hopeful because they are close to collecting enough money for one of the transients, named John, to get a bus ticket home to the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, but he worries the man will get drunk and change his mind at the last minute.
Serendipitously, Roy and Mateer run into John just a few moments later. He appears to be sober – standing sheepishly under the Northside pedestrian bridge with a few other men.
“I’m going to work with Travis here and we are going to get that ticket for you,” Roy said over the roar of the train. “If you don’t get on that bus after we buy that ticket for you, you are going to wish you had.”
John promises to refrain from drinking before his bus leaves in the morning, confirming his desire to get off the street and return home.