The Missoula Police Department's response to business owners' complaints about the boorish behavior by clients at the nearby Poverello Center this week became the center of discussions about the balance between compassion and enforcement, or that of nuisances and criminal activity.
Kari Brittain, the co-owner of Tia's Big Sky restaurant across from the Poverello Center, brought new energy to that discussion this week when she complained to the Missoula City Council on Monday night that she sees drug deals constantly on the block.
She also said she has to clean up piles of human feces and garbage.
"Police patrol, if it was more undercover and more often, I think it would be a good thing," Brittain said. "There's three certain cars that drive up to the Pov, and the people line up to it. It's like they're selling candy. No, they're not selling candy. They disperse if I sit there long enough."
Brittain said the police are very kind and helpful and generous to the Pov clients, noting she saw a police officer buy someone a car part.
On Wednesday, Missoula Police Sgt. and Public Information Officer Travis Welsh told the Missoulian the frustrations from residents and business owners around the West Broadway corridor are duly noted, but there are no two sets of constitutional rights for those who do and don’t have stable housing.
“We can’t go and simply move people along or tell them to leave town. Those days are gone,” he said. “We try to treat everybody with respect. We are guided by state and local law, as well as the Constitution that gives citizens the rights we all share.”
It's been less than six years since the event known as the “Wino Roundup” in Wolf Point, when Fort Peck Tribal Police, in the hours before the largest summer event of the year, detained 29 street people without formally charging them with any crime. The Great Falls Tribune reported witness accounts suggesting the number of people detained and moved to a detention facility was closer to 50. Most spent hours detained in the local jail’s basketball court without bedding or restroom facilities.
In that case, a Bureau of Indian Affairs investigation found 29 individuals’ rights were deprived without legal justification.
A subsequent civil rights lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in 2016 against the city and tribal officials who were alleged to have called for and carried out the roundup was dismissed the next year. That fate came not for lack of merit, U.S. Magistrate John Johnston wrote in his order, but because those steering the lawsuit failed to make filing deadlines and appear in court.
In Missoula, a review of the daily law enforcement reports in the area around the Poverello Center shows eight calls for service from March 27 through 6 a.m. Thursday morning. Those calls included three for suspicious activity, two shoplifting, one theft, one trespassing and one unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
Considering police respond to between 50,000 and 60,000 calls per year, according to Welsh, eight calls in one area in a week almost seemed to put Welsh at some ease; without extra patrols, marked and unmarked, in that area, that number last week could be higher, he said. He added concentrated efforts are employed in the area, and during the summertime school resource officers will be deployed on bicycles for additional patrols.
And perhaps the tally over the last week doesn’t reflect the amount of crime actually occurring in the area around the Poverello Center. Welsh conceded "we don't know what we don't know," and asked that business owners and residents alike continue to make reports to law enforcement.
“We’re putting a lot of resources, as much as we can, into the area,” he said. “However, we still have the rest of the city to patrol and respond to calls for service. Sometimes calls do get prioritized based on the nature of the call being reported. But, you know, the biggest thing we need people to do is be our eyes and ears, because we can’t be everywhere at once. We need people to call.”
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While the Pov predates Tia's location on West Broadway, Brian Dirnberger has owned Montana Glass just down the street since the 1990s.
"It's always kind of been a questionable neighborhood," he said, referring to the bar that used to occupy the site of the Pov. "But anymore with the Poverello here, people commute back and forth, especially lunchtime, and most of the time you ask them to move on they're pretty respectful but they leave garbage everywhere."
He said when he talks to the people or the City Council, the problem is usually temporarily fixed but then things always revert.
"There's been a lot of talk, but it's just something real needs to happen," he said.
"A permanent bathroom would be a really nice thing for people who can't get into the Pov because of circumstances they may have brought on themselves," Brittain said. "But they're urinating against Montana Glass, they're urinating on our building and they're defecating. The kids see it, that's not good. Maybe if they had a bathroom, like the one (in downtown Missoula) maybe it would eliminate that problem."
The Pov doesn't allow visibly intoxicated people to enter.
The managers of the Poverello Center say they prioritize being a good neighbor, but the shelter has seen "significant" growth in the use of its services over the past two years and it's understandable that neighbors feel impacts as well.
“Having open lines for communication with our neighbors is very important to us at the Poverello Center,” said Amy Allison Thompson, the Poverello Center executive director, in an email. “For many years we have held morning neighborhood meetings every other month. Based on feedback from our neighbors we have recently increased our neighborhood meetings to once a month. Meeting times now alternate between evening and morning meetings to make them more accessible.”
The next meeting will be on April 15 at 5:30 p.m. at Imagine Nation Brewery across the street. Future meetings are the third Monday of every month and alternate between starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Pov or 5:30 at the brewery.
“The Poverello Center will continue to work hard to reach out to our neighbors, and my door is always open to talk with community members who have concerns,” Allison Thompson said. “We also have to remember that there are major issues in our community that are causing homelessness such as lack of affordable housing, low wages, and continued cuts to mental health and substance use counseling."
She said she hopes people understand it will take the whole community working together to "make sure that people who are experiencing homelessness have a permanent place they can call home.”
One result of a neighborhood meeting was a neighborhood clean-up day. Last November more than 30 volunteers, staff and clients picked up trash on streets, parks and business parking lots. The next cleanup is this Saturday, April 6, and a sign-up can be found at signup.com/client/invitation2/secure/2739411/false#/invitation.
“Regular community meetings provide important opportunities to have deeper conversations and to work together to come to real solutions when problems arise,” adds Elise Watts, the Poverello Center's shelter manager.