Letter To The Editor: Great Falls Homeless Crime

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I had an old minister some time ago who always liked to preach that when you point a finger at someone, be very careful because you have three more pointing right back at you, on your own hand. There seems to be a whole lot of finger pointing going on concerning the brouhaha over the homeless camp at the United Methodist Church (UMC) downtown as well as the homeless population, drug use, and crime in general. A well liked City Commissioner has appropriated it as his cause célèbre on social media. Well meaning people on both sides of the issue have lobbed Bible Verse Grenades at what is seen as the “other side”. There are several who aren’t so well meaning either. The downtown homeless population have been blamed for drug use, assaults, prostitution, indecent exposure, littering, jay-walking, sleeping in doorways, being dirty and unkempt, and an unsightly mess. I’m surprised they haven’t been accused of shooting JFK, being Jack the Ripper, hiding Jimmy Hoffa’s body, or impersonating Lizzy Borden. According to some, it’s this unkempt ragtag group of useless ne’er-do-wells who are single handedly preventing unbridled development and investment into our downtown simply due to their inconvenient presence. 

Much chest-beating hyperbole has gone into looking into causes and fixes. However it all boils down to blame the homeless. Get them out. Out of sight, out of downtown, out of Great Falls, out of mind. They are subhuman, not suitable for human interaction with our superior Great Falls “normals”. After all it’s easy to place the blame on the defenceless and castigate those (UMC) who are actually trying to make a difference while others just cry the blame game and point fingers. 

Don’t misunderstand me here either. I know that some of those homeless/vagrants/destitute/wretched, whatever you tag them with, are committing crimes. Others are just homeless who have fallen on hard times, many so long they see no light at the end of the tunnel. Many have been so downtrodden their human dignity is something that they may not have lost, but our “normals” certainly don’t recognize it in them. Others are suffering from various mental illnesses and have been left to their own devices on the street, unable to comprehend reality. We shelter homeless animals better than we shelter our mentally ill. As William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army said in the mid-1800’s, the work horses get better treatment than those who are down and out. I can see nothing has changed in people’s minds since that time.

Yet we have the power to effect positive change if we would just quit finger pointing and blaming, hoping we can get someone to make the problem “disappear”. The first major step should be to effectively deal with the crime with real consequences. Real crime deserves real justice and not just punitive justice alone. That rests not on the backs of those committing the crime but on those who are prosecuting and judging that crime. The City & County prosecutors and judges need to step up to the plate and take responsibility for legal and judicial actions that return criminals to the streets instead of incarceration and rehabilitation. Much of this problem falls squarely on their lap. It doesn’t matter how many times our law enforcement arrests someone if the prosecutors and judges don’t hold up their ends. They have many tools available that they choose not to use. Treatment Court is one. Sentencing to the Great Falls Pre-Release Center (GFPRC) instead of jail is another. Work release can even be a part of the solution. The GFPRC has many programs available to help people transition into a self-sustaining community member. Judges can give stiff sentences but suspend any amount of the sentence which could then be automatically enacted should a person reoffend. Our City Commissioners could institute a “vagrancy enhancement” through city ordinances for drug and violent crimes that homeless commit. This, if established correctly, could give judges more leeway or authority in stronger sentencing. Anyone who absconds while on parole or probation would not be extradited back to Montana, but would serve their maximum sentence if caught in Montana. 

Yet I doubt any of this will ever be done. It’s far easier to roust the destitute than it is to change “the establishment”. The “Crime Task Force”, baby of that City Commissioner mentioned earlier that just sat spinning its wheels is proof of that. 

Jesse Oldham
Great Falls, Montana

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