Vagrants cause problems for Helena businesses

Posted at 4:02 PM, May 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 14:57:59-04

HELENA – Downtown Helena business owners say employees have been assaulted, customers scared away and if something isn’t done, stores may close. The businesses are frustrated by homeless and transient populations making them and their customers uncomfortable.

Jeremy McFarlane, owner of Jmacs Pottery on North Last Chance Gulch, said he has personally had to call the police many times to report fights in the street and one time a transient man collapsed in the doorway of his business.

McFarlane and other business owners, who didn’t want to be identified, said the problem appears to be getting worse.

In a letter sent to the city signed by Jmacs and more than 20 other businesses, owners said “There have been an increasing number of incidents on the 400 block this year involving homeless or vagrant people. The increasing number of people living outside in the downtown area is having negative effects which ultimately affects revenue. Any loss of customers can be detrimental to small businesses. We need something to change right now.”

McFarlane said the Downtown Helena business community is tight-knit and they have all noticed issues.

“We have noticed that it’s just a lot harder to conduct business on a day-to-day fashion where our customers don’t feel harassed or even possibly in danger at some point,” McFarlane said.

But the problems with transient populations extend beyond businesses’ bottom lines. The letter says some employees have been assaulted while taking out trash, customers have been grabbed or kicked and some vagrants downtown have been “spitting on passers by.” Female employees have resorted to using a buddy system to avoid being harassed or assaulted.

Jeremy said he wishes the Helena Police Department would be more proactive when they see vagrants in the area.

“If they would have just gone and said ‘hey get out of here’ rather than us just having to call repeatedly, things most likely wouldn’t have happened. At least not in my opinion,” McFarlane said.

The Helena Police Department wasn’t immediately available for comment Tuesday but did say they are aware of the issues downtown.

McFarlane said he just wants a safe, comfortable place to do business. If something doesn’t change, some businesses may be forced to close.

“We are reaching a point where we must address this immediately or we will start to see businesses reducing hours of operation and possibly closing, due to safety and health concerns,” the letter said.

McFarlane and other business owners took their concerns to the city and McFarlane said Mayor Wilmot Collins was receptive to the concerns laid out.

“The biggest thing is we want our customers safe. We want people to want to come downtown. We just want everything to work out in a positive manner for both sides,” McFarlane said.