After several downtown business owners sent the city a letter that said homeless people on Last Chance Gulch have left some workers feeling unsafe, Helena officials held a community meeting Monday night to listen to grievances and potential solutions.
A steering committee invited the community to the meeting at the Helena Civic Center in order to “address concerns regarding undesirable, unlawful behavior and disruptive conduct in the downtown area,” including interactions around God’s Love, a shelter located on Last Chance Gulch that provides services for people struggling with issues ranging from mental health to job security.
The city hired Julie Benson-Rosston, a Carroll College professor and independent communications consultant, to facilitate the meeting on what has become an emotional topic.
The letter to the city was written by Jeremy McFarlane, owner of Jmacs Pottery and president of Friends of the 400 Block, who pointed to “the increasing number of people living outside in the downtown area.”
“Some of us have needed to take steps to avoid incidents,” the letter states. “For instance, to take trash out or to get to their cars, women in stores near the corner of Placer and Last Chance Gulch need to use the buddy system to avoid being harassed or assaulted. ... Customers have requested someone escort them to their cars because of the people outside. Bottom line: our customers and employees feel unsafe.”
The letter refers to an incident earlier this year, when a woman caused thousands of dollars in damage to the General Mercantile’s bathroom and had to be pepper-sprayed to be arrested, closing the business for the day.
Those issues are part of why the city put together such a large event on Monday.
Mayor Wilmot Collins opened the meeting by encouraging "solutions oriented" discussion.
“We live in a community,” Collins said. “We organized this meeting not to blame, but to find a solution to whatever possible problems we have.”
Collins said the goal of the evening was to use the community to find different viewpoints.
“We don’t have all the ideas,” Collins said of the city commission. “We want the community to buy into the solution … solutions are more effective that way.”
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Over 100 people came to the event, filling 10 tables in the Civic Center ballroom. The first 45 minutes of the evening were devoted to conversing in groups of 10 or more people at a table, leading into a discussion period where recorders told the group at large what they had come up with.
The brainstorming session named a laundry list of issues, ranging from the nameable, physical impacts like public urination, camping, screaming expletives in the early morning hours, needles on the street, broken glass, drinking, drug use, graffiti and “general disruptive behavior." The group also identified larger problems that exacerbate specific issues, such as lack of mental health care, no public transportation, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of policing resources and community inclusiveness.
Helena Police Department Lt. Brett Petty, a member of the steering committee, said the police department had officers out of their cars and walking on the walking mall to “show more of a presence” in the downtown area during summer hours.
“Not a lot of folks come out and tell us their concerns,” Petty said. “Here we can discuss it more openly and freely,” which Petty thinks will help with the police response.
The final piece of the meeting began with a discussion of three prompts: “What we would like to see instead?”; “What are some proposed solutions?” and “Please identify resources to solve the identified problems.”
Responses again ranged widely. Safety, housing, cleanliness, a commitment to social justice and a better understanding of the root causes of poverty, along with a request for a better understanding of why people are using and requiring services downtown, were among the answers.
Proposed solutions involved adding bouncers, a community cleaning day, additional officers, a written expectation of behaviors for business owners, combining the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office with Butte-Silver Bow’s Sheriff’s Office, and having better criminal justice information available.
It was not clear if any homeless people were at the community meeting to give feedback on the responses.
Some next steps that the public suggested included volunteer work and community service, making a set of expectations for Helena and providing more community-oriented opportunities for people.
No future meetings on the issue have been scheduled yet, but city officials will take suggestions into account as they craft their response.