homelessPhoto by SamPac

UPDATE DEC 17, 2013: The Missoula City Council passed the ordinance Monday night. We continue to oppose it, and will work to protect the rights of the poor and homeless.

Imagine having no chair and no bed, but being told you can't sit or lie down in a public place.

That's what's potentially in store for homeless people in downtown Missoula if proposed amendments to the city's anti-panhandling ordinance pass on Monday.

We strongly oppose this plan to criminalize the poor and homeless.

The proposed statute’s stated goal is to reduce aggressive behavior, violence and obstruction, but there are already laws on the books in Montana to address that criminal behavior. What this ordinance really does is criminalize noncriminal behavior and target the poor and homeless for discrimination downtown simply for sitting and lying down. It will only make difficult lives that much more miserable.

The amended ordinance would:

  • Prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks within 20 feet of an entrance to a building within the entire city.
  • Prohibit sitting and lying on a sidewalk within the downtown area between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.
  • Prohibit sitting and lying within 20 feet of a footbridge or tunnel.
  • Add to existing begging prohibitions to create a de facto total ban on begging downtown and in much of Missoula.

In our letter to the Missoula City Council, ACLU of Montana Staff Attorney Anna Conley outlines the many ways this ordinance violates the constitutional rights of the poor and the homeless.

Courts have repeatedly ruled that begging is a protected form of speech. What could be more important speech than expressing a desperate need for food, shelter and clothing? The proposed Missoula ordinance singles out the poor, seeking to quash their free expression. This violates the First Amendment.

To criminalize things like sleeping and sitting in public spaces when there are not enough shelters and not enough services in Missoula to help the poor and homeless is inhumane and a violation of the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

It is also discriminatory.

This ordinance targets poor people, plain and simple. Who believes that a police officer is going to cite a well-heeled shopper for sitting on the sidewalk for a rest? No one. This ordinance would primarily be used to harass the homeless and those who have nowhere to go. That is discrimination, and that is illegal.

Furthermore, this ordinance increases the burden on Missoula police officers by forcing them to spend time chasing people off sidewalks rather than going after real criminals. It also puts them in the unenviable position of having to discriminate or cite children selling Girl Scout cookies or playing the violin with an open case for donations.

We urge the Missoula City Council to vote down these amendments. Homeless people need help, not harassment.