Supporters of safety and civil liberties turned out Monday, Feb. 10 to testify in favor of changes to Missoula's panhandling ordinance. As it stands now, the ordinance violates First Amendment rights without doing anything to enhance safety.
Here are the comments from Janet Finn, a Missoula resident and chair of the social work program at the University of Montana:
Good Evening Mayor Engen and Members of the Council:
I want to thank Council Member Jason Weiner for his opening remarks regarding proposed changes in the panhandling/solicitation ordinance and to express my support of his proposed revisions in Draft B, which presents a less restrictive option. I also want to express my concern overall regarding the tone of changes that make it ever more restrictive for persons to be on Missoula's downtown streets whether sitting or holding a sign asking for work, food, or funds. Mr. Campbell (MDA person who addressed Council earlier) stated that these proposed changes were not about homelessness.
However, such restrictions would adversely affect people who are poor and homeless. Under these proposed changes, it is not one’s actions but one’s very “presence” on the streets of Missoula that becomes construed as criminal. To me, this does not reflect the stance or values of a community that has lone prided itself on tolerance.
Our existing criminal codes already cover acts of aggression. Let’s not confuse fear of difference or discomfort with another’s life circumstances with a threat to safety. Let’s support consistent enforcement of existing codes rather than create vague laws that defy uniform enforcement and penalize people for their life circumstances.
I have lived within a mile of downtown for the past twelve years. I frequently run, walk, shop, and eat downtown.
Perhaps we could draw inspiration from our great “superheroes of kindness” we met here tonight. It seems to me that kindness and conversation make for a stronger community than policies of exclusion and criminalization.
Let’s avoid seemingly neutral laws that, in effect, target specific groups. Let’s support quality of life and civil liberties of all persons in our community. Again, I support the revisions put forth by Jason Weiner as a step in the right direction, in that they challenge some of the more restrictive language of Draft A. Thank you.
 The February 10 City Council meeting started with the Mayor proclaiming “Superheroes of Kindness Week” and a small group of children – about 5-6 year olds – were on hand, homemade capes and all, to deliver roses to each council member. It seemed like a good image to invoke.