It was surely more than 200 and maybe 300 people who packed the ballroom of the Northern Hotel last week to hear what civic leaders in Billings had to say about the problem of homeless people, panhandlers, and vagrants on the city streets. Billings Mayor Bill Cole underscored that the huge turnout reflected the level of concern people have about the issue.

Touted as a “public safety forum” the program was an assessment of the situation in regard to laws and how the Sheriff’s Department and Police Department handle their roles, the success of efforts and programs so far, and what is needed in the future to continue to make inroads to a problem that is continually being fueled by a number of social ills, most significantly drug abuse. “What do you want public safety to look like in your community?” asked County Attorney Scott Twito, who oversaw the meeting. “The question is not easy to answer.”

It is more than just a law-enforcement issue, came the message from Sheriff Mike Linder and Chief of Police Rick St. John. “It is not against the law to be homeless, or poor or mentally ill,” said St. John. In fact, it isn’t even against the law to be drunk in public, so long as one is not causing harm to others.

A security consultant, Mark Johnson, a partner with Vantage Point, LLC, made clear that everyone has a role to play, and that there are effective measures that can be taken by property and business owners which are simple and inexpensive – such as trimming shrubbery and replacing burned out light bulbs. It is a strategy they hope to pursue in downtown Billings.

Chief St. John emphasized that there is a difference between people who are homeless, and those who are aggressive alcoholics or panhandlers. Homeless people and the mentally ill are usually passive and will go away when asked to leave an area.

The story is different for those who are abusing drugs and alcohol and who come to Billings “to party.” Those offenders, who are often aggressive and attempt to intimidate people, have declared that Billings is their Las Vegas, said St. John. And he cautioned people about wanting to confront them. It’s not wise to pick a fight with someone who has little to lose, explained St. John.

Panhandlers are not usually homeless, he said.

Sheriff Mike Linder reported on the construction and refurbishing process that is underway at the jail. Having to shift inmates from area to area in order to conduct the work is augmenting the already over-crowded status of the jail, but it is not true that people who should be in jail are being left out of jail because of the lack of space. “Everyone who should be in jail is in jail.”

According to Linder, incidents of violent crime have been “on an even keel – maybe even down some,” while “property crimes” such as theft are on an increase, with the common denominator being the use of “meth.”

Over 10,000 inmates passed through the Yellowstone County Detention Facility in the last year, which was down 7000 from the year before. Sheriff Linder attributed the decline to the programs that have been pursued by law enforcement and the judicial system to find alternatives to incarceration for those who do not pose a threat to the public.

St. John urged that any situation that posed a danger or risk to the safety and well-being of citizens be reported. “We will respond,” he declared.

Programs and strategies that have been put in place to provide solutions other than incarceration are having an impact.

City police responded to 95,000 calls last year and “we are on a pace to match that this year,” said St. John. It is “quality of life issues” that “makes my phone ring,” said St. John – issues that have to do with livability and the presentation of the community.

Dealing with people who have mental health problems and addiction issues usually pose complicated situations. “Jail is not the place for them, and neither is the hospital emergency room.”

“There is some great work going on.”

St. John explained the success they have had with MAAP (Motivated Addiction Alternative Program), a program that offers a carrot and stick approach – giving habitual perpetrators a choice between jail or treatment. The program identified 90 people in the downtown area who were “frequent fliers” and focused on offering them alternatives to jail. None of those 90 are among the people who are posing problems now. Many took advantage of the opportunities presented and have been able to straighten out their lives, a few unfortunately died, but in general the program was able to make a significant difference.

The problem in continuing MAAP and maintaining its success is having enough clean and sober housing, but it has demonstrated success in dealing with the problem.

 Scott Twito said he believes the best solutions are local solutions, and with that in mind they have called upon Vantage Point, a Bozeman –based firm, to assist in identifying ways of reducing the incidence of crime through the proper design of a built environment. Called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), while new to Montana, has proven successful in other states, said Mark Johnson.

Johnson explained how businesses and property owners can make changes that will impact the level of crime by making their properties less desirable places to hide or hang out. That involves being able to keep eyes on the street, which means being able to see into or out of buildings through windows and doors cleared of banners or signs, not blocked by overgrown trees or shrubbery, replacing burnt-our light bulbs, and leaving lights on inside of stores at night.

The many things he advocated are inexpensive first steps that are effective and less expensive than installing video cameras. “It will improve safety and the quality of life.”

“We need your help,” said Chief St. John to the audience, and he went on to explain that they have initiated a program in which security advisors will help implement CPTED. They will be calling on each place of business and upon property owners in the hope of getting their volunteer cooperation.