Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Tensions over Missoula's homeless population surfaced on Monday night as the City Council adopted an emergency ordinance closing parks, trails and conservation lands to overnight camping, citing public safety.

The hearing lasted nearly six hours and the ordinance passed 9 to 1 with council member Daniel Carlino voting in opposition and Kristen Jordan abstaining. Council comments can be found at this link.

While some homeless advocates expressed frustration over the decision and argued that parks should be open to all users at all hours regardless of safety concerns, others voiced outrage over the growing public health and safety risk posed by portions of the city's homeless population.

Officials said Monday's decision brings the city in line with the mandates of a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which requires adequate shelter space before moving homeless campers from public property, unless public health and safety is at risk.

Personal responsibility wasn't mentioned once by either side of the debate and advocates of the ordinance admitted that most campers had no other place to go. As passed, city parks will be closed between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“This is about coming into compliance with a decision and working through a very challenging situation,” said Mayor Jordan Hess. “It's one decision of many. It's a minor surgical change to our code. This remains a large, seemingly intractable problem.”

The emergency ordinance will last for 90 days but could be extended later this month after a second City Council hearing. Hess said expanding the city's shelter space will be a top priority this budgeting season, which is currently underway.

Without action, city officials said Missoula would be out of compliance with the court ruling and would risk creating “incompatible” uses in public parks, which the taxpayers have invested tens of millions of dollars to enjoy.

“Our community has a great amount of compassion and care,” said parks director Donna Gaukler. “But all of our community members have a right to be able to access parks, trails, open space and picnic shelters during open hours. We can't have different sets of rules for everybody.”

The City Council floated a number of amendments to the measure on Monday night, some passing and some failing. The hearing lasted more than five hours with little resolve.

Crime and drugs concern workers, families seeking safety

Recent stabbings, gun threats, drug needles and human waste tied to homeless campers have left many members of the wider public apprehensive. Some fear that children are vulnerable, and parents have voiced reluctance in letting them play in the park under current conditions.

Two homeless individuals in downtown Missoula. (Missoula Current file)
Two homeless individuals in downtown Missoula in 2022. One individual has since passed away. (Missoula Current file)

At the same time, most agreed that the emergency ordinance approved Monday night was not a solution to a problem facing most of the West. It was intended to make parks safer during the summer when children and camp programs were most active.

“Nobody at the city is pretending this is a long-term solution,” Hess said. “We, like cities around the country, are struggling with folks living without shelter. We're seeing an acute increase in folks living without shelter in our community.”

Mixed opinions from those who spoke out

Members of the public on Monday shared mixed opinions. Some accused the city of “sleeping on the issue,” despite the fact that it has directed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to homeless programs in recent years including shelter, staffing and housing.

Others accused the city of disregarding the impacts that homeless campers are having on the wider public including business owners. Stepping over drunk or passed out homeless individuals on the sidewalk or encountering drug needles in parks wasn't good for business, several said.

“I had a business in town for 20 years. I got out of it this last year and one of the reasons was the location. The homelessness issue became quite a problem,” said Tonya Foley-Neuman, owner of a former local business. “I feel you (City Council) may want to get information from outside the circle your involved in.”

Other employees near homeless hot spots spoke of cleaning up human waste and drug needles while fearing for their safety. It wasn't what they signed up for, one speaker said.

But Sue Silververt, a mental health counselor, shared her “frustration and sadness” over the city's current homeless situation.

“I know it's a complicated issue. But folks who are homeless are not disposable. The majority of people who are homeless are people with serious mental illness, addiction, survivors of abuse, trauma and veterans, and people who are poor. It's unconscionable that in a place like Missoula that we have hundreds of people with housing.”

If state won't, who should pay to solve homelessness in Montana, and how?

Those on both sides of the issue generally agree that shelter space, addiction services, job skills, mental health care and housing would help alleviate the issue. But disagreement begins with who should pay for such services and how. Solutions are costly and the city is heading into a challenging budget year where surplus revenue doesn't exist.

Voters also turned down a crisis services levy last November, which would have funded certain programs. The state was also sitting on a $2 billion surplus heading into the 2023 legislative session, but the Republican majority invested little revenue to address homelessness.

That has left all sides frustrated, but the ire has since been directed to the City Council.

“The thing that's the most infuriating about this particular moment is this alarm that's coming from members of City Council as if this crisis just appeared out of nowhere when we've been dealing with this for years,” said Joe Pastigselv.

Others said homeless campers who break the law and pollute the city should be held accountable. Being homeless doesn't give individuals a right to act differently than the rest of society.

“At the very least you have a garbage situation, and at the most you have a situation that endangers people's lives,” said Nancy Butz. “We all have rights and responsibilities. That doesn't mean a person or group of people has the right to exist however, wherever and whenever they want.”