Westside neighbors ask City Council, mayor for help addressing rampant crime

Problems in the Westside increased after the Poverello Center relocated to West Broadway, neighbors said Monday night. (Facebook)

One by one, quietly with handwritten notes, residents of Missoula’s Westside came before the City Council Monday night to talk about how their neighborhood has changed in recent years.

Hypodermic needles litter the sidewalks, alleys and backyards – especially when the snow and ice melt each spring, revealing winter’s throwaways.

Homeowners wake to find transients camped in their backyard, or sleeping on their porch, cellphones plugged into the outdoor electrical outlets.

Ask a trespasser to leave your yard or climb down from the wall around your patio and they’re likely to argue or threaten violence. And no, they won’t budge.

“There’s a lot of fear,” said Patrick Montgomery, who owns a condominium on Toole Avenue.

“Please help us,” said Jay Kirby.

Missoula police have been responsive and empathetic, the neighbors agreed. But there are too few of them, said Shelley Wilson, and she feels guilty calling 9-1-1 so often.

Besides, the problems are more complex than a simple show-of-force fix, they said. In Lions Park alone, the issues range from prostitution to drug dealing and addiction to violence and voyeurism.

So rampant is the crime, day and night, that a counselor at the Youth Homes residence that adjoins the park said the children in his care can no longer go outside and play games.

“It’s hard for us to watch and hard for our kids to watch,” he said.

To a one, though, the Westsiders said they love the neighborhood.

Kathy Witkowsky has lived on Phillips Street for 20-plus years. It’s a magical place, she said, but it is no longer safe.

First to address the City Council Monday, Witkowsky encouraged her 50 or so neighbors who filled the audience to tell their stories.

Only then, she said, can Missoula’s leaders “understand the desperate and heartbreaking nature of the situation we are in.”

The crime is affecting homeowners, renters, business owners, social workers, retirees who live in ground-floor condos and young children who are afraid to cross the California Street footbridge or to play in the park.

One woman asked why the city hasn’t followed through with promises not to let the neighborhood be affected when the Poverello Center relocated to West Broadway a few years ago.

The problem isn’t only clients of the homeless shelter, as the epidemic of drug use affects a far larger group. But the Poverello is certainly part of the problem, several neighbors and nearby business owners said.

Lisa Deer’s On Center Performing Arts studio was represented by her husband, Tony, who said the business must deal with crime, harassment and voyeurism every day.

The studio sits just across the alley from the West Broadway Zip Trip. Its students and their parents are sometimes harassed just going between the parking lot and the front door.

“We’ve had people walk into the studio and try to use the restroom,” he said, “and people who want to just come in and watch our classes. People who aren’t parents of the children.”

The problem is obvious, given On Center’s students, ages 2 to 16, Deer said. For the same reason, the dance studio had to cover its windows. If they don’t, voyeurs will stand outside and watch the young girls.

Mayor John Engen promised Westsiders their concerns were heard and will be addressed. (Missoula Current file photo)

The neighbors found a receptive audience in Missoula Mayor John Engen and members of the City Council. They, too, took turns speaking, thanking the Westsiders for coming to the meeting and promising their concerns were heard.

Engen said he’ll convene a meeting with “any or all” of the residents and the city’s leaders to work on solutions. The residents said they’ll be there, and want to be part of the problem-solving.

“The fact that you are all here speaks volumes to the people around this table,” Engen said.

City Council president Bryan von Lossberg said his daughter attends Lowell School, so he understands the concerns firsthand and promised to help find solutions.

Councilwoman Mirtha Becarra said she lived across from Lowell for 10 years and “can attest to the kindness of the neighborhood,” but also to the increasing problems.

Councilman Jordan Hess lives on the Westside and said the “spirit of the neighborhood was captured in how all of you came down here tonight.”

Councilwoman Heather Harp counted 19 neighborhood members who testified, representing the larger group assembled in City Council chambers who “spoke with their presence.”

“What you have experienced is extraordinary, and not in a good way,” Harp said.