David Stalling

There’s a once beautiful spot along the river behind my apartment where I used to occasional sit on a large, flat-topped rock and enjoy my coffee. Now it’s one of many urban campsites throughout Missoula, homes of the homeless.

People who can’t afford the $1,200 monthly rent for studio apartments, or the $600,000-plus price even small homes now go for around here, or the $1.5 million dollar homes being built in the Bitterroot Valley just south of here.

I walked down there with my coffee this morning to check it out because a neighbor of mine, a woman I like, said the homeless man living there yelled at her and threatened her when she recently walked down there with her dog. Now she’s afraid to walk around. She’s going to buy some pepper spray.

No homeless person was home when I walked down there. But the garbage, the graffiti, the cigarette butts, the human feces and toilet paper, the mess, the stench of urine . . . It’s all a bit emotionally overwhelming to me. It’s disgusting. It’s annoying. It’s sad. It’s depressing. All the same emotions I struggled with while working for Mountain Line, driving bus loads of homeless people with mental health issues who triggered my own mental health issues, including anger, that eventually got me fired.

I have a lot empathy for the homeless. I think I understand, or at least I try to understand what led them to where they are. At least some of them. I was fortunate; I have a wonderful, compassionate former wife who let me live in her basement for years, and family and friends who helped me despite my best efforts to drive them away with my anger, insults and self-destructive behaviors including drug abuse. I also received, and continue to receive, help from the Veteran’s Administration.

It’s a tough, complex issue with no simple solutions. But something has to be done. I know the most successful efforts begin with safe, permanent housing (“Housing First”) where people can get past their worries and stress about where they’re going to sleep, and what they’re going to eat, and focus on the difficult work of dealing with challenging, seemingly insurmountable mental health and related addiction issues. Of course, this also requires mental health professionals, addiction counselors, therapists and others. It’s expensive. Taxes are already high.

So we turn our backs, or worse. Some make thoughtless, ignorant, inaccurate statements such as, “They should just go get jobs,” “or we should put them on a bus and ship them to Seattle,” or “If we help them more will come,” or “I’m not paying to help lazy useless drug addicts.” (Some of those folks are the same people building or buying $1.5 million dollar homes in the Bitterroot.)

Not all homeless people want help. Many refuse to move into available homes and shelters because they don’t like rules and authority. But much of that is a reflection of mental health and addiction issues. Denial is a part of addictive thinking. The first step is to admit you have a problem. Tough love should be part of any and all proposed solutions.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But there are professionals with knowledge, experience and answers. We should listen to them, work with them and seek tough but compassionate solutions. A growing and expanding homeless population is a symptom of a societal illness. We need to examine, diagnose and treat it or it will continue to get worse.