The issue of sex offenders has come up repeatedly during often-heated discussions about moving the Poverello Center homeless shelter from its long-ago-outgrown quarters on Ryman Street in downtown Missoula.
It's about the children, Missoula County Public Schools Board president Toni Rehbein said at a meeting earlier this month between school board members and three Poverello officials.
Specifically, it's about the children of Lowell Elementary School, which is just three blocks from the old Trail's End bar on West Broadway, the spot preferred by the Missoula Downtown Association for a new shelter.
"We're already a stressed neighborhood. We have the lowest economic status in Missoula and the neighborhood is very stressed with poverty," said Elena Ulev, a parent who's been outspoken against the Trail's End plan.
At first glance, statistics seem to support the concerns. More sexual offenders, a total of 126, live near Lowell than any other elementary school in Missoula, according to the state registry of sexual and violent offenders.
Some 32 of those people are in the Missoula County jail and the prerelease center, but the 94 remaining still leave Lowell at the top of an unenviable heap.
The neighborhood around Franklin Elementary School is a distant second, with 63 sexual offenders within a mile.
"Our neighborhood shouldn't have to take the brunt of everything. Something should be in the Rattlesnake. Something should be in the South Hills," Ulev said.
Chief Charlo Elementary in the South Hills and Cold Springs, also on the south end of town, rank at the bottom of the list, with 21 and 20 sex offenders, respectively, in their neighborhoods.
But Poverello interim director Eran Fowler Pehan said the offender registry statistics only tell a partial story.
"We live and work amongst people with a criminal background history," she said. "They shop in our grocery stores. Oftentimes they're our neighbors. I have no say if someone moves in next to me with a registered sexual or violent status."
The numbers even out considerably when it comes to the worst "Tier 3" offenders, those deemed likely to repeat their crimes.
Ten sexually violent predators live within a mile of Lowell, although one is in jail and another in a prerelease program. Nine live within a mile of Franklin Elementary School, and eight within a mile of Russell Elementary. Most of the other elementary schools have only two or three registered nearby - although two Tier 3 offenders are listed as being registered in every single district because they're transients.
"I don't think moving the Pov to any one location is going to disproportionately affect that level," Pehan said.
The Poverello Center refuses admittance to the worst offenders. The shelter and soup kitchen currently shows 12 low- or moderate-risk sex offenders who use it as their registered address, although only five are staying there.
The Poverello's no-Tier 3 offender rule isn't exactly reassuring, Ulev said.
"I'm concerned that the Pov turns away Level 3 offenders, as well as people who are drunk or high. Where are they going to go? Are they just going to roam around? Are they going to come into our alleys, hang around in our (Westside) park where the Lowell kids play?"
Rehbein said concern for the city's schoolchildren goes beyond proximity to sex offenders.
"That's just one issue," she said, adding that when it comes to the Poverello Center, "it's the whole package" that causes concern. Pressed for details, she said, "It's just a situation that can make children who are walking to school afraid."
School board members, polled by telephone earlier this month, supported the shelter remaining in its present location downtown. "Everybody felt the same. We were unanimous in saying that the safety and security of our children is No. 1," Rehbein said.
School Superintendent Alex Apostle said in a telephone message that board members' feelings echoed his own.
When board members met with Pov officials, "we said, ‘What can we do to help you stay there?' " Rehbein said. Board members have no plans to discuss the issue further, she said.
No matter where the Pov goes, the neighborhood around Lowell will likely continue to have a disproportionate number of sexual offenders, several of whom live in the inexpensive motels along West Broadway. In fact, the old Missoula Motel cabins behind Enterprise Rent-A-Car house more sexually violent predators - 12, two of whom are considered sexually violent predators - than any other location than the jail.
The reality check, said Pehan, lies in the actual numbers.
"Individuals with offender status are such a minuscule part of the population struggling with homelessness," she said. "The issue of chronically homeless individuals with alcoholism is a much larger issue."
As to the school board's fears for children's safety, she said, "we each have an individual responsibility to be aware of the dangers in our community."