Sarah Howell, director of Montana Women Vote, spoke at the Feb. 10 Missoula Council meeting against an anti-panhandling law that violates civil liberties and for commonsense actions that protect safety and actually help Missoula's poor and homeless. Thank you, Sarah.

Here are her comments:
We appreciate the opportunity to offer comment on the proposed amendments to the anti-solicitation ordinance.

Montana Women Vote is a statewide non-profit organization that works to engage low-income women as informed voters, policy advocates, and community leaders.  As such, we care deeply about policies enacted at all levels of government that affect the lives of low-income women and families.  We feel this ordinance has the potential to create numerous negative impacts on low-income women and families, either directly as a result of enforcement of the ordinance or as an unintended consequence.

As I’m sure this council knows, no community is easy to live in when you’re homeless or facing housing insecurity. 

But we are not helpless in the face of neighbors and community members living this reality.  In fact, city councils just like this one are where solutions are found and steps are taken to address the conditions that low-income people face and improve our communities for everyone.

We believe that the current ordinance, as written, does the opposite.  It creates an atmosphere in which people without homes are unwelcome in downtown Missoula.  It sends a message to low-income people that should they become homeless, they too will be subject to scrutiny and the policing of their behavior, and that their efforts to secure food, shelter, or work will be actively hampered by our city code.

Furthermore, this ordinance prohibits people who are not engaged in any threatening, harmful, or unlawful behavior from sitting on the sidewalk.

Here are some reasons one may choose to sit on a sidewalk:  to nurse a baby, to wait for a bus, to rest your body if you’re tired or in pain, or to catch your breath.  This ordinance demands that Missoula police either selectively enforce the law based on appearance, social condition, or other forms of discrimination, or apply the no-sit law to people in instances such as I’ve described.  We believe that neither of these choices are acceptable.

Montana Women Vote’s preference is that this ordinance to be rescinded; however, we recognize Councilman Wiener’s proposed amendments as a reasonable compromise.  We support these amendments in their entirety and hope the Council will move to adopt them.