Two men sit with their legs stretched across the sidewalk, backs against the green doorway near the Oxford Bar and Grill. A younger woman with a dog stands beside them.
“So this is where they are sticking us,” says a man who identifies himself only as Joe, as chalk lines closed around him.
Joe watches with a look of disgust on his face as a curious visitor uses a tape measure and chalk to identify the spaces that will remain available for sidewalk sprawlers once Missoula’s pedestrian interference ordinance takes effect on Thursday.
Joe, his friends, and their belongings, overflow the three feet of legal loitering space outlined between the Ox and the store next door.
The pedestrian interference ordinance was approved on Oct. 5. The ordinance itself does not expressly target homeless people but debate leading up to the vote pit downtown commercial interests against advocates for the homeless. The ordinance reflects the concerns of some business owners and employees that people hanging out on the sidewalks block access to storefronts and intimidate customers. Advocates for the homeless argued against a complete ban on sitting or sleeping on sidewalks as uncompassionate.
The ordinance prohibits sitting, lying or sleeping within 12 feet of any entrance to a downtown building. It also limits congregating in downtown streets and alleys. The offense will be considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of as much as $100.
Missoula police say they will be enforcing the ordinance mainly if they receive a complaint about specific people in a given space, which is how complaints have been handled in the past.
“It all depends. If we get a complaint from a business that someone is camping in their doorway we’ll enforce it,” says Missoula Police Sgt. Richard Stepper. “But if there is a large group, and I mean 10 to 15 people, in someone’s doorway we’ll enforce it,” even if no complaint has been made.
View Missoula Pedestrian Ordinance Sitting Space in a larger map
People on both sides of the issue say the ordinance might cause new problems while attempting to solve old ones. By concentrating more homeless people into less space, the ordinance may make it harder, not easier, for pedestrians to navigate Higgins.
The revised ordinance will cluster groups of people on street corners and in several 20- to 60-foot spaces in the middle of street blocks.
The ordinance reduces the space where people may congregate by almost two thirds on sidewalks between Main and Spruce Streets on the west side of Higgins Avenue. Once the rule takes effect, one third remains available –- 350 feet of free space -– of the almost 1,000 feet of concrete between those streets. Missoulians looking to lie, sit or sleep on the sidewalk will have to squeeze into those seven spaces. The distribution of space is typical, or even more generous, than other blocks downtown.
Toward the north end of Higgins, Alan Nielsen views the situation from behind the counter at Worden’s Market, where he has worked for almost eight years.
“Now you are giving them the right to congregate 12 feet from our door,” Neilsen says. “We’re not here to make life harder for these guys. We just don’t want them to make ours harder in the process.”
After the Ox, Worden’s is the second most popular spot for transients to congregate, Neilsen says.
“On this particular corner, the people are buying booze. We sell the beer they want after they get money,” he says, wondering aloud if people would give money to panhandlers if they knew the lions’ share was going to buy alcohol.
Neilsen says Worden’s handles things in their own “vigilante” style because they feel calling the police is a waste of everybody’s time. Instead, the store tries tactics like putting tables outside in the summer and calling it an “outdoor café,” making the sidewalk part of their business.
Now he worries that customers could be harassed and the store could have no grounds to move the homeless if they are past the boundary.
“We pay the rent on this corner, not them,” he says.
South of Worden’s at the corner of Higgins Plaza, Dennis Ellison sits on a green canvas duffel bag, listening to his radio. Above his head, a sign in the window reads, “No Loitering.”
“I’ve had a cop tell us to go to city hall. They’re trying to round us up,” says Dennis Ellison. “They want us all in one spot and we ain’t doing that.”
The homeless who hang out on Higgins Avenue know they are the target of the ordinance. They don’t like it, and they say they aren’t leaving.
“[We’ll sleep] in the alleyways, we don’t care,” says Joe, outside the Ox.
Further down Higgins, there are no warm feelings about the city council’s decision.
Ernest Twomoons, a homeless Native American, is outraged. Many of the people living on the Missoula’s streets are veterans or Native Americans. They, he says, have fought for their country or are native to it and should not have to fight for a piece of pavement.
“Once you run out of money, once you run out of everything, the only thing you got is the city,” he says. “You’ve got the sidewalks, and now they’re trying to take that from us too.”
Many supporters of the ordinance point to the corner of Spruce Street and Higgins as a problem area that attracts sidewalk sitters. The ordinance, however, is unlikely to change that. This popular piece of concrete is the largest permitted gathering space along the three city blocks. Once the 12 feet on each side of the door to Worden’s Market have been accounted for, some 62 feet remain available for sitting on the south side of the market.
This space could easily be the most comfortable and safest place for the homeless population to sleep on Higgins Avenue during the night. Not only is it lit, but it is covered along the length of Worden’s storefront and offers substantial shelter from the elements.
Heading south, toward the river, the block between Spruce and Pine Streets is the best bet for those who want to rest on the sidewalk. In that block there is 169 feet of space available for resting in six separate areas. Apart from the three feet on the corner near Sushi Hana and the 10 feet on the corner by Worden’s, there are 46 feet on the south side of the Higgins Plaza entrance and 32 feet on the north side. The 16 feet between the alley and parking lot entrance next to Worden’s is allowed under the ordinance.
The block between Pine Street and Broadway is the longest stretch of sidewalk with the shortest amount of space available for sitting – 83 feet divided into six small spaces. There are four feet on the corner of Broadway, 23 feet between an empty space for rent and the former Splash Kitchen and Bath, 12 feet between J Elaine’s and Specticca, 25 feet on the side of a parking lot, three feet next to the Oxford and six feet on the corner of Pine.
Between Broadway and Main Streets there is 99 feet of available space in five distinct spots: 38 feet on the corner of Main Street, 20 feet between the two doors of First National Bank, 22 feet between the alley and First National Bank, and 16 feet on the corner of Broadway Street. Between the various doors at Liquid Planet and Allegra Print and Imagery there is just two feet of space.
“There’s not even room to put one ass there,” says Abdullah Al-Jamea as he walks by the chalk-marked gap.