Missoula City Council members are considering amending two 2009 ordinances in order to further curb downtown miscreants’ “bad behavior,” which business owners say is hurting downtown commerce.
Councilwoman Caitlin Copple recommended the changes to the pedestrian interference ordinance and the aggressive solicitation ordinance at the Public Safety and Health Committee meeting on Wednesday. The proposals are designed to to combat conduct such as aggressive panhandling that she says has gotten “out of control.”
“I just really feel like we have to do something to ensure that people downtown feel safe and can move around and do their business,” Copple said.
But some council members argue that all people have a right to public spaces and the mandate would essentially criminalize homelessness.
The changes would prohibit people from sleeping, lying or sitting within 20 feet of a doorway, entrance to pedestrian footbridge, alley or tunnel.
The ordinance currently mandates that people cannot sleep or lay within 12 feet of a doorway and panhandlers cannot solicit within six feet of doorway.
Presently, panhandlers are prohibited from asking for money within 20 feet of certain areas like ATMs, banks, bus stops and outdoor patios or cafes, and these new changes would make that distance uniform with any such action.
From panhandling near specific locales or sleeping near a doorway, all people who participate in such activity would have to stay 20 feet away from key points of commerce.
The new changes would also forbid sleeping or lying on the sidewalk in the Business Improvement District, which stretches from downtown to the Hip Strip, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
“We are trying to target behavior, and we are trying to make sure that this real estate that the community has made significant investment in over the last 30 years, remains a safe, comfortable place for all Missoulians,” Mayor John Engen said at the meeting.
Bob Jaffe is one of the council members who expressed concern about the proposed measures at the meeting.
“Would there be any place that homeless people could be downtown if we passed this?” Jaffe asked Missoula City Attorney Keithi Worthington.
He requested city staff provide the council with a map of where people would be able to be downtown.
A map that details the 2009 ordinance wasn’t available, nor was a map laying out the proposed changes, city staff reported.
Worthington said she could name a couple of places off the top of her head where people could be, and told council members there has been an uptick in the number of citations given in the downtown area since 2012.
In 2013, police issued 83 tickets for blocking access to a building and 26 tickets for soliciting from the roadway, she said.
Worthington said the biggest increase in 2013 has been the aggressive solicitation tickets – up from seven in 2012 to 22 in 2013.
The proposed changes have the support of many downtown business owners and Missoula Downtown Association Executive Director Linda McCarthy, who was one of the first members of public to speak on the changes’ behalf.
In a 2012 letter to the editor, McCarthy told Missoulian readers that the two ordinances approved in 2009, among other efforts, resulted in the improvement of the “public right-of-way environment” and a decrease in aggressive or obstructive behavior.
But McCarthy said Wednesday that is not the case in 2013.
In an interview following the meeting, McCarthy said that downtown ambassadors have had contact with thousands of more panhandlers in 2013 than they did the year before. McCarthy believes the sharp increase is related a “different type of transient” brought in by the Rainbow Gathering.
She is adamant that the issue is not about homelessness.
“This is about the people who choose to impede pedestrians … and impede growth and economic well-being of our community,” she said.
“We have employees quit their jobs because they don’t feel safe. We have had businesses that chose to locate elsewhere. In the last three years we have two folks who were sleeping in city alleys who were run over by vehicles. One of our downtown ambassadors got bit by a dog owned by a transient … so there are safety issues,” she added.
A few council members expressed concern that the ordinance changes won’t actually curb aggressive panhandlers and other bad behavior without more law enforcement resources downtown.
Missoula currently employs one downtown police officer during the fall, winter and spring months.
During his 40-hour workweek, Officer Andy Roy said he sees 20 percent of the downtown scofflaws causing 90 percent of the problems, and is obviously unable to manage what he calls the “five amigos” causing the trouble when he is off duty.
He said that he likes certain parts of the changes to the ordinances.
Because of the current differences in proximity that people are allowed to sit, sleep or panhandle, Roy says many times, intoxicated people on the street have a difficult time remembering or understanding where they can and cannot be.
A uniform distance of 20 feet away would make it easier for Roy to explain to such people.
But he also worries, that without extra police, any ordinance passed by City Council may be rendered useless.