Transients, Panhandlers Causing Trouble in Montana Cities

By Beacon Staff

Business owners in the downtown areas of Billings and Missoula are searching for solutions to the increasing trouble they’re having with transients and panhandlers.

Missoula has an ordinance against pedestrian interference and aggressive panhandling, but some business owners say the consequences aren’t severe enough to discourage the behavior.

“Our business community is feeling the frustration because they’re not getting the response they need,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “Our police officers are frustrated because they’re limited in what they can do.”

Some are calling for fines and possible jail time for repeat offenders.

The city backed away from a stricter ordinance earlier this year after a federal judge in Idaho ruled that asking for money is protected speech. The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the ordinance in Boise, Idaho, and ACLU Montana said it would challenge Missoula’s law as well.

In Billings, the Downtown Billings Alliance met Wednesday to discuss similar issues with public intoxication and transients.

The city’s downtown resource officers — Tony Nichols and Matt Lennick — said the number of police responses to drunken and disorderly complaints has increased, as has the number of citations for open containers.

The officers say a preliminary investigation suggests nearly half of such citations are linked to a single convenience store.

Management at some stores downtown have stopped selling single containers of cheap beer with higher alcohol content, but Lennick says others continue to do so. He said he may have to contact the Department of Revenue, which oversees liquor licensing, to see if they can help.

Billings City Attorney Brent Brooks said he is looking into possible statewide legislation or a city ordinance to prohibit the sale of single cans or bottles of alcohol.

Police Chief Rich St. John said it’s not illegal to be homeless or sit on a corner and hold up a sign asking for money, but he discouraged people from giving money to panhandlers.

Mayor Tom Hanel suggested moving some services for the homeless away from the downtown area.

Such services are needed, he said, “but they are in the wrong place.”

Such problems could end up hurting the cities’ economies.

In Billings, a couple said they might close their antiques business because they’re tired of dealing with belligerent drunks, the Billings Gazette reported.

Ellen Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, said she recently met with developers considering a high-priced project in the city.

After the meeting, one of the developers spent the evening downtown and wasn’t impressed with the level of panhandling, aggressive behavior and inebriation, the Missoulian reported.

“He told me, ‘You’ve got some cleaning up to do in your downtown,'” Buchanan told the city council’s Public Health and Safety Committee on Wednesday. “This is someone who is looking at a multi-multimillion-dollar investment downtown. His concerns certainly caught my attention.”

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