Downtown Billings Alliance CEO Katy Easton told a crowd of about 50 people attending Wednesday’s Community Innovations meeting she has a stack of letters on her desk from downtown business owners concerned for the safety of their employees — and about the downturn in business that’s occurred as a result of increasing public intoxication, open container violations, trespass and other downtown woes.
Speaking to Yellowstone County Commissioners Thursday, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said officers are seeing more and more transients and others “who come to Billings to party. This is their Vegas. They are aggressive, and they know they aren’t going to jail.”
The Motivated Addiction Alternative Program, which gives people with multiple recent citations the choice between treatment and jail, has “lost its stick,” Easton said, because overcrowding at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility has meant an end to access to the five beds that had been reserved for the program.
“(MAAP) was wildly successful, and it made an obvious difference, but lately we’ve struggled with the overcrowded jail,” Easton said.
Designed for a capacity of 286, the jail uses double bunking and held 471 people Thursday, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said.
Workers are putting the finishing touches on a new 148-bed unit for women as well as laundry and kitchen expansion. Voters approved the $18.8 million project in June 2016 by a 57-42 percent margin.
Easton said jail officials told her recently they might be able to offer up to three beds for MAAP use. “One bed would be amazing,” she said. “Then word could get out that the program is back in place.”
Josiah Hugs, the program’s resource outreach coordinator for the past year whose job it is to help get people addicted to drugs and alcohol into treatment, said his job of late is “to be a presence on the streets in the morning and the afternoon.”
“I look at it as planting seeds,” he said, “and when I see the person again, I water those seeds.”
Bryan Knicely, the new executive director at Yellowstone Art Museum, told commissioners he’s concerned about the safety of the 11,000 students who visit YAM each year. Students must use the YAM parking lot to cross between the museum and the Visible Vault, a parking lot where arguments and fights break out.
“We have had too many close calls in recent weeks, and we are asking for assistance before something happens that will scare our patrons from coming to the museum (and downtown),” he wrote to Yellowstone County Commission Chair John Ostlund. YAM can’t afford to hire around-the-clock security, he wrote, and at any rate, “our security team and the police only move the issue around the downtown corridor as we tell the vagrants to ‘move along.’ Pushing them around the area is not solving the issue.”
St. John advised Knicely to continue calling for police help — and not confront people making trouble.
“If they have committed a crime, we will charge them accordingly,” he said. “What you are talking about is unacceptable.”
However, “it takes more than enforcement,” St. John said, saying police enjoy a “robust relationship” with mental health and rehabilitation providers, including the Crisis Center and Rimrock, both founding partners in Community Innovations.
“The number one thing lacking right now is clean and sober housing,” St. John said. “They can couch surf for a while, but eventually they fall back into bad behavior. We need to work on the treatment end, because that’s what’s been successful. Our problem right now is there are just a bunch of bad people in jail — and they need to be.”
A co-founder of Community Innovations, Lisa Harmon, the former DBA executive director who’s now minister of healing and community transformation at Billings First Church, said the group is exploring what a 2.0 version of MAAP might look like.
Community Innovations participants said in a recent survey they believe two needs stand out — sober housing and sober activities. Toward that second goal, a new social media site, Sober Fun Billings, now has a Facebook page to identify fun events — most of them downtown.
Perry Roberts, Montana Rescue Mission executive director, reminded Community Innovations partners that “everyone here has a constituent group they can reach out to. Downtown business owners are struggling with these issues, but I don’t know that we are talking enough to the people who can do something about this … I walk to work every day, and I live in this environment. I don’t think people realize how closely those of us who work on housing issues work together.”
“The population on the street is the hardest to work with,” he said. “We are coming together and trying to do things, but all of us need more money. It’s not a shrinking problem — it’s a growing problem.”