The Missoula City Council passed an emergency, citywide ban on aggressive solicitation last night in an effort to curb what many Missoulians view as a growing panhandling problem.
The ordinance, which passed 7-4, is effective immediately and prohibits all acts of “aggressive solicitation,” as well as other more passive forms of panhandling. The new law outlaws panhandling in a variety of places — such as within 20 feet of an ATM machine, outdoor patio where food is served, and public bathroom. It bans it within 6 feet from an entrance to a building, which essentially prohibits the practice all along Higgins Avenue. And it makes it illegal to ask for money or objects of value — with words, placards or even gestures — in Missoula at night, anywhere.
The passage of the ordinance — and the wording of it — means different things to different groups. The police claim that it’s another tool to keep people safe.
“It’s not just geared toward making things more pleasant -– it’s about public safety,” said Rob Scheben, crime prevention officer at the Missoula Police Department. “We’re trying to protect everybody -– even the panhandlers and their constitutional right to panhandle.”
“There are many different kinds of behaviors that need to be regulated -– we’re trying to be fair,” said Chris Odlin, the uniform patrol captain for the police department.
Odlin and Scheben claimed the ordinance was not intended to single out homeless people.
“Everyone has to share the same space, and some don’t feel safe around certain activities,” said Scheben.
Some street dwellers, however, said they were confused about the new ordinance.
“What’s aggressive?” asked a young man named Chris, who writes stories while he sits on the sidewalks downtown and waits for passersby to drop some change. “Does that mean you can’t ask twice?”
Actually, asking twice could be interpreted as aggressive according to the new ordinance, which includes nine different definitions, including this: “Continuing to solicit from a person after the person has given a negative response to such soliciting.”
Scheben described the kind of situation the ordinance is intended to curtail: “We received one complaint where a man claimed he was getting into his car and someone opened his passenger-side door and reached into the car asking for money,” he said. “That’s pretty aggressive.”
What happens on the streets, meanwhile, is often a lot less cut and dried. A lot of street people don’t see the harm in what they’re doing, or think it should be a crime.
“Panhandling is only verbally asking someone for money,” said Johnny Belmarez, a local street dweller who goes by the nickname Raven. “Is it sitting down with your hat on the ground? Is that panhandling? I don’t think so.”
As Raven was talking about it, a police officer pulled up and questioned him and two nearby people about a complaint that they were drinking and sleeping on the sidewalk.
“We haven’t been drinking,” said Raven, with alcohol-saturated breath.
“Do you see any sleeping bags out here?” a man named Dennis asked the officer.
The officer drove off, after declining to comment on the new ordinance.
“I’m not quitting panhandling,” said another street dweller nicknamed Canada, after the officer was gone.
“What did Jesus say?” asked Dennis. “If someone needs food, you feed them.”
But many panhandlers don’t need food, said Odlin, the police captain. “Many panhandlers aren’t poor,” he said. “Many are making a good hourly wage.”
There is a maximum $100 fine for violating the new ordinance, which Odlin said he thinks will be a deterrent.
“These people are very well-connected as a group,” said Odlin. “They know what’s okay and what’s not. And they don’t want contact with the police. Once they realize they’ll be fined, and that a warrant will be put out for their arrest for failing to pay, they’ll avoid those actions or go someplace else.”
Business owners and employees in the downtown area had mixed responses to the anti-solicitation ordinance.
“We need to get those people off the damn streets cause they’re a nuisance,” said Barrett Kubas, owner of the Missoula Pendleton Shop on Higgins. “They’re a burden on society, and I don’t think they need to be here at all.”
Vicky Mix, who works at Runner’s Edge on Higgins had a very different reaction. “I haven’t felt like people were confrontational,” she said. “I haven’t had anybody be aggressive toward me.”
“We try to teach our customers and ourselves to respect all people,” said Mark Thomsen of Worden’s Market. “But sometimes that chain of respect is broken — that’s when people get upset.”
“We don’t want to feel like we’re disallowing anyone to come into Worden’s,” continued Thomsen. “We accept anyone from the human race, so I’m not sure this is going to change anything for us.”
Scheben said he still thinks the new ordinance was necessary. “This is just a small part of a larger solution,” he said.
Other activities banned by the ordinance include:
— Any solicitation technique likely to cause “a reasonable person to fear bodily harm” or harm to their property if they don’t give money.
— Repeated solicitations after a negative response, touching someone without consent while soliciting, and blocking or interfering passersby.
— Using threatening gestures or profane language, or following people for purposes of solicitation.
Scheben said that he encountered virtually no opposition to the ordinance while it was being developed.
“We’ll be very aggressive about educating,” said Odlin. “For the first 30 days, we’ll only give warnings.”