Flirting with hell: Montana leaders’ approach to homeless problem appalling

March 16, 2023 4:46 am

A homeless man sleeps outside The Billings Gazette in downtown Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

There’s a place in hell for those who are cruel to homeless poor people.

That’s not some liberal windbag editor pontificating about local and state lawmakers who have taken up the habit of trying to run homeless folks out of their towns and state.

Those are the words of none other than Jesus Christ, whom many of these same lawmakers and leaders believe is under threat from the godless left.

“And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Matthew 25:28-41


Montana’s new trend of trying literally giving the bums’ rush to homeless folks is a bad look. It’s also disingenuous as … well, the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Last week, legislators debated spending just a little of that $2 billion surplus on programming that would ostensibly help with Montana’s growing homeless problem, a predictable outgrowth of housing prices that have risen much faster than wages.

Yet a bunch of local and state leaders would like to engage in a false narrative about those who don’t have their own living space, or a voice to push back against lawmakers who literally want to run them out of town.

Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, advocated for spending millions on bus tickets, “because they’re not the ones we want to help.”

This follows Flathead County Commissioners’ action last month in which they rejected the “homeless lifestyle.” As if there are kids dreaming about becoming homeless, or adults who think flirting with frostbite is trendy.

Lawmakers also reassured residents that churches around the state have the problem well under control. But that bit about churches taking care of their own – a popular line of something less than logic – is belied by the Montana Legislature’s own proposed bills that would make it easier for churches to house the homeless because, as it currently stands, many churches are barred by state and local fire code from doing anything.

This Montana winter is holding on with a bitterness to match the rhetoric of lawmakers, many of whom are literally being housed in Helena on the taxpayer dime. As I write this, the low in Billings last night was 11 degrees. It’s hard – if not impossible to imagine – that anyone would voluntarily choose to spend the night in a place like that. And that temperature has been typical, if not even colder, for months.

Don’t bother with the emails that go something like this: If you love homeless people so much, why don’t you invite them into your house? First, I support using 1/10th of one percent of the surplus to try to send more help. In fact, I support sending even more than that.

Secondly, I went and rinsed the urine off the side of my garage last week after watching a man I presume was unhoused pee on it. I live around the problem, but the solution isn’t going to be found on a Greyhound bus.

The truth is that we have spent more time worrying about tax breaks for the most wealthy in our state, and we’ve spent plenty of time devising ways to give back money to people who have much of it. And we’ve done that because it’s easy, even though the trickle-down economic theory which undergirds that policy decision has been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked.

Instead, we’d rather convince ourselves that poverty, abuse, addiction and mental illness – all drivers of homelessness – are a character flaw or a choice, as if people aspire to lives of desolation and derision. If that doesn’t soothe our conscience, which should be pricked into seeing the most extreme examples of the “have-nots” in society, we trick ourselves into believing that caring for the homeless is the responsibility of churches. But how many churches do you know are flush with cash or have mental health counselors, shelter, kitchens and all the other items that go along with caring for the unhoused?

In Billings, Montana’s largest city, there are an estimated 650 to 1,000 unhoused people at any given time, with less than half of that number of beds.

Last week, Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, called homelessness an “inconvenience” even as snow fell on the Capitol during the debate. A more religious person might even see that as a sign.

But even Duram’s colleague, Rep. Smith, couldn’t help but let the truth slip out in his defense of trying to make the Flathead’s homeless problem someone else’s.

“We take care of our own,” he said.

And as I survey what the legislature has done so far – dropping tax brackets for the top wage earners, making it harder for transgender kids, attacking the judiciary, vaccines, and sending more money to private schools – I guess he was right: They have taken care of their own.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.