The Missoula police department is pushing for stricter laws that would make it easier for the city to regulate people who rest on, or otherwise obstruct, public walkways.
In a Public Safety and Health committee meeting this morning, Police Chief Mark Muir answered questions about the necessity of a more explicit pedestrian obstruction ordinance, and its potential effect on homeless people and other citizens.
Muir began the discussion by claiming that the ordinance was, in part, designed to protect people who were found sleeping on the street.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think that a sidewalk is a safe place to lie,” said Muir. He cited recent cases where street people were abused or robbed while sleeping outdoors.
But several city council members voiced opposition to the proposed ordinance, saying, among other things, that it seemed unnecessary and wrongly singled out and attacked one segment of the population over others.
“The real issue,” said council member Bob Jaffe, “is the need to move people along because the downtown business community is afraid these people are scaring off their customers.”
If police already have the responsibility and authority to keep people safe, asked Jaffe, why do they need another law that prohibits sleeping on the sidewalk?
“I take exception to the idea that we would propose an ordinance that allows us to legally harass certain people,” responded Muir. However, he agreed that the ordinance was less about keeping homeless people safe, which police are already authorized to do, and more about giving officers the authority to wake up street people, question them and require them to move along without risking charges of harassment.
“I will say that the focus has shifted from the beginning of this process,” said Muir. “I’m here to tell you that we are unable to remove people who are obstructing a passage. But I agree that this has gotten distorted — it’s not strictly about community care. The goal of this ordinance is to make downtown — our entire community — a better place.”
Ellie Boldman Hill, executive director of the Poverello Center, a non-profit shelter providing essential services to struggling Missoulians, said people who sleep on sidewalks are generally people with various forms of mental illnesses and addiction problems.
“I would say they’re sleeping downtown because they’re under the influence, but it’s really the mental illness that explains why they’re on the sidewalk,” said Hill. “They’re not choosing that. They have nowhere else to go.”
Council member Ed Childers lamented the lack of better solutions to the problem. “Our society expects everybody to have a place and a reason for being there,” he said. “Homeless people don’t have a place in our society, and we have no solution for that.”
The committee will continue to debate the proposed ordinance next week.