How can the city make progress on helping the homeless?
I would like to preface these issues by recognizing that many people facing homelessness in Missoula do not panhandle, but the reality is some of the homeless population chooses to live on the streets, while another portion have come upon hard times, and some are facing mental illness issues.
First and foremost, we need to make sure our downtown and neighborhoods are safe to work, play and live in. We can be respectful and empathetic while working to address concerns. The fact is, though, we have business owners who are afraid to walk in and out of their businesses and often have to walk over urine, vomit or worse. Our responsibility is to make sure Missoula is safe for all.
Locally, we need to look at programs that assist people facing homelessness. We have agencies in place to assist us on a limited level but the increase in panhandling has been exponential in recent years, despite ordinances to prohibit this. The police department is given limited authority to address this issue, yet again lacks the resources. A good option could be to institute a day labor program that would pay those spending their time on the streets to clean up the city rather than soliciting.
There are multiple groups working in the community that want to help. If we could get them all working together in a combined effort we can make more of a difference. Granted, there is a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Missoula, but if we can get all the interested community groups on the same page rather than working independently, we can make a visible difference, although eliminating it altogether does not seem likely.
We also need to do a better job of informing the public about the social services Missoula offers. Educating Missoula citizens about programs and how they can donate to the services rather than individuals will help discourage the panhandling culture, and help those facing homelessness that don’t solicit. The Poverello Center and the Missoula Food Bank come to mind immediately as such. If used as intended, these services can make a difference in helping people get back on their feet.
Regionally, we need to work with other communities facing the same issues to devise common solutions and coordinate efforts. Missoula sits on a path from Billings to Spokane with Butte and Bozeman on the way. Together we could join forces to make an impact on this issue.
I like to do my homework and I take a lot of time to try and inform myself on issues including this one. When researching solutions, I looked at different cities around the U.S. that had commonalities with Missoula and that are creating plans and programs to really take action.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, has the flagship work program for panhandling in the nation. Since they started the program in 2015, they have almost 2,000 jobs, 117,000 pounds of trash collected, and around 250 people who have now transitioned into permanent employment. Places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Portland, Maine, have also started similar programs this year after the success of Albuquerque’s program. Portland, Maine, especially resembles Missoula with a population of around 67,000, a focus on the outdoors and a similar climate. Even larger cities like Chicago, Illinois and San Jose, California are finding success.