The city council in Columbus, Ohio, figured out a way to outlaw panhandling, and the new executive director of the Yellowstone Art Museum wants Billing officials to consider that kind of outside-the-box approach to downtown inebriation.
After meeting last month with Yellowstone County Commissioners and the Community Innovations group, Bryan Knicely told the Billings Cultural Partners Monday the Columbus approach was to outlaw begging within 170 feet of a cash machine.
“That pushed the issue out of the downtown,” said Knicely, a former Columbus resident who has also lived in Evansville, Indiana. “I know (Billings’ problems go) beyond people asking for money. There are people passed out on our front lawn every day.”
In a letter to the 33-member arts organization, Knicely said “vagrants have become very aggressive and obstinate in our requests for them to leave the property. This is putting our staff and patrons in situations that are unsafe … Until we find a solution to the issue, however, we will be turning people and economic development away in our downtown core.”
“We want to help in any way that we can,” Knicely told Billings Cultural Partners, meeting at the Montana Audubon Center.
Partners agreed to send a letter to city officials, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Billings Alliance and other groups, “saying this is important to us as a group and we would like to be part of the solution,” said the group’s chairman, Jack Nickels. “We don’t want to just voice our concerns. We have to be willing to help if they ask us to.”
Owing to the lack of space at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, the Motivated Addiction Alternative Program is becoming less effective, Community Innovations partners learned last month, because the threat of jail time verus treatment for frequent offenders is not an option without dedicated jail beds.
“It doesn’t seem as bad as it used to be,” said Kevin Kooistra, executive director of the Western Heritage Center. “We used to have some nighttime activities where elderly people were harassed."
“I don’t know if (security) cameras have helped,” he added. “When people would smoke pot by the Frederick Billings statue I’d tell them they’re on camera right now, and that tends to move them along.”
Knicely said fights in the YAM parking lot occur frequently. Staff and patrons “are threatened and yelled at,” he said. “We need to look at how we can stop enabling people.”
“It is an educational process,” Nickels said. “As communities grow, so do their problems. We want to be able to work with the city to find a solution. We want a seat at the table, and not just complain about the problem.”