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A homeless person in downtown Missoula in December 2013.

MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks arrived at the committee meeting last week with a stack of criminal files under her arm. She didn’t name the names listed inside, but rather referred to them as the “downtown core of problems.”

Nearly a dozen in number, the core group of troublemakers have business owners fed up, law enforcement officials frustrated and advocates for the homeless scrambling to find solutions to what nearly everyone agrees is an ongoing problem.

What do you do with those who routinely disobey the city’s pedestrian interference and aggressive solicitation ordinance?

“As a dose of reality here, I can fine these people forever,” Jenks told the Missoula City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee. “They’re never, ever going to pay me any money. When you’re writing ordinances to address this core group, you need to be aware there’s no way to collect this money.”

Over the past few weeks, the committee has invited experts to present their opinions on the issue and offer up possible solutions.

They have included a Missoula police officer who asked for more enforcement options, an attorney who called for stiffer penalties, and the head of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency who offered words of caution, saying the problem is giving the city a black eye and jeopardizing future community investment.

The committee has also broached the creation of a detox facility at the county jail, and it will discuss the topic of “wet housing” in the weeks ahead. That move would create a space for problem drunks who can’t stay at the Poverello Center under the shelter’s strict substance abuse rules.

Yet each option carries pros and cons. If repeat offenders were jailed for violating the city ordinance, the city would be charged $110 a day for their incarceration. A detox facility would take money as well, and wet housing has its own challenges.

“The wet housing would be a lifesaver for a large group of people, but it’s not probably going to address this core group,” Jenks said. “These people fight. They fight with each other, they fight with strangers. They’re mean drunks. It’s one of those things that would need to be addressed.”

***

Nearly two feet thick when combined, Jenks’ stack of criminal files holds the records of just five men she has seen in court over the past few weeks. One offender has 111 charges over five years, another has 193.

Jenks said the cases often include multiple charges – assault, trespassing and criminal misconduct. There are open container infractions and numerous violations of the city’s troubled pedestrian interference and aggressive solicitation ordinance.

Some violations are jailable under state code, and because they fall under state code, state taxpayers foot the bill. But the city doesn’t currently have any ordinances that come with jail time. If the City Council opted to include jail as a penalty, Jenks said, the city would have to foot the cost of incarceration.

With the option on the table, Jenks said incarceration could help strengthen the city’s ordinance and serve as a deterrent. If repeat offenders were jailed, they’d be off the street at least, unable to harass downtown shoppers, tourists and business owners.

But the fix would only be temporary, she cautioned. Given the underlying issues driving the scofflaw behavior – substance abuse foremost among them – the “core group of problems” would likely return to their old ways once released.

“The core problems have different issues and different needs, and they need to be addressed differently,” Jenks said. “They each need different solutions.”

Jenks also disputed the public perception that Municipal Court is filling up the Missoula County Detention Facility. The jail includes 396 beds and 144 of them are allotted to the Department of Corrections.

Another 24 beds are reserved for minors, 21 are held by federal officials, and the remaining 201 are shared by district, justice and municipal courts.

Jenks said Missoula Municipal Court uses just 10 percent of its allotted beds.

“At any given time, we have 15 to 25 people incarcerated at the detention center,” she said. “Given our volume as compared to Justice Court, we’re incarcerating at a very low rate. We really aren’t utilizing the jail to the extent some in the community believe we are.”

***

Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association, has watched the problem ebb and flow over the past 15 years. Aggressive panhandlers and the transients who take to the sidewalks to sleep or sit deter some from shopping downtown.

In recent weeks, several community leaders and business owners have shared stories with the council – stories of community visitors who were shocked to see the level of panhandling, aggressive behavior and inebriation present in downtown Missoula.

McCarthy said mom-and-pop business owners are just trying to make a living, and downtown troublemakers aren’t making it any easier.

“I think there’s a misperception that our downtown businesses are thriving,” she said. “The downtown deals with this issue in ways other destinations in our community do not, because the public space connects to their building.”

And that’s been part of the problem – the sidewalks, alleyways and street corners are public spaces. When the city tried to include sitting in its pedestrian interference and aggressive solicitation ordinance, it quickly faced a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. The city backed down as a result.

Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent has also reminded city leaders of Montana state law, which denies local governments the power to prohibit or penalize vagrancy. The law does not define vagrancy, however, and it does give governments the power to punish aggressive solicitation.

As the city debates ways to resolve the issue, MDA has turned to other cities for solutions. McCarthy noted Calgary among the examples, where the downtown association placed a donated piano on a troublesome street corner in an effort to deter crime.

The community has taken ownership in the instrument – and the street corner by default. Toronto and Victoria have also turned to the “crime fighting piano” method, and McCarthy said MDA is exploring its options as well.

“How do we create public spaces that encourage positive behavior?” she said. “We can’t be single-focused on this issue. We have to be multi-dimensional.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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