Gazette opinion: Downtown meeting was a great first step

2014-06-04T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Downtown meeting was a great first step The Billings Gazette
June 04, 2014 12:00 am

Judging from the turnout of business owners and leaders at last Wednesday's meeting to address homeless and public intoxication in downtown, there's a need to find solutions to the problem which doesn't just seem to be getting worse, according to statistics presented by the Billings Police Department, it truly is getting worse.

And yet, homelessness and public intoxication seem to be the symptoms of larger, more complex problems that aren't just solved by a few meetings or one single action.

But, if the turnout and list of ideas is indication moving forward, then Billings has taken an important first step at addressing these vexing problems.

City leaders including city administrator Tina Volek, police chief Rich St. John and mayor Tom Hanel should all be commended for holding the forum and not flinching at the topic. 

No one wants to call a meeting to address these sorts of topics because -- let's face it -- these aren't the kind of things we'd want to see on tourism brochures. And yet, taking a trip downtown, it's sometimes embarrassingly obvious that there's a problem that needs addressing. Good for the leaders for taking the proactive step to do something about it.

Speaking of that, the solutions to the problems probably won't be found in just a couple of meetings. 

Here's how Chief St. John recently put it to a group of leaders: Say you see someone downtown drinking or panhandling illegally. Police approach the person and write a ticket. But since the person is homeless and has no money, it is just another ticket that will never get paid, but consumes staff time to write. Maybe after receiving the ticket, the person throws it on the ground in disgust. What would you do? Write another worthless ticket for littering?

The problem is that the jail is overcrowded; you can't ticket people who don't have money; and, it's not necessarily a crime to ask for money or be homeless. 

So police are given few tools to respond. 

Speaking of that, though, police are responding to calls in record numbers. Last year, in the most active area of concern downtown, police responded to just a little more than 1,000 calls. This year, not even halfway through the calendar, police have already passed 900 calls.

The solutions are complex because the problems aren't straightforward. 

Police and city officials pointed out that many of the people who drink downtown might appear to be homeless, but are not. In fact, those same leaders confirmed many of the people who are homeless seek out services available in the community to re-establish residency. Instead, the downtown area may have a public intoxication problem.

Solutions presented at Wednesday's meeting ranged from writing more laws to consolidating services into one campus. The good thing -- if there can be any positives in this situation -- is that Billings is not the first city to deal with this issue. Many cities have faced similar issues.

In fact, this problem may be further evidence that Billings is continuing to grow into Montana's first real city. These are urban problems and they'll likely need solutions that haven't been necessary in other parts of the state.

And, this problem won't just take money or changing a few ordinances. It will also take business leadership coming together with leaders at City Hall to continue to work collaboratively. We hope the city officials continue to facilitate these important conversations and provide the kind of powerful data to help understand the problem better.

For its part, the business community must continue to participate in solutions, as well as publicly support the city as it looks for funding and resources to direct to this problem that is just as obvious as driving North 27th Street.

It might be easy to think that this problem is just one of image -- that a bunch of suits get their feathers ruffled because of a few panhandlers. But that's not it. We cannot be satisfied to become the kind of community where every bench in downtown is occupied by someone passed out. We cannot be the place where police and the city cannot solve a problem because there's simply nowhere to take people and no teeth in a law. We can't be the kind of place where businesses would rather closer their doors than deal with who might come in off the street. 

Billings has worked too hard to revitalize downtown to let this problem get any worse. 

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