Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After months of debate and years of consideration, the Missoula City Council on Monday night adopted new policy regulating the time, manner and place in which crisis camping is permissible in parks and on public property.

The policy bans camping in parks from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and lays out where camping during overnight hours is permissible. It also directs the mayor to explore other homeless programs in the city such as opening an authorized camp site, offering more trash and needle containers, and establishing an on-street permit program for overnight parking.

As it stands, funding and staffing for many programs may be out of reach but backers of the resolution, including the mayor, called the policy a fair and compassionate balance in addressing the needs of all Missoula residents, homeless or otherwise.

“I have to take into account all community member's needs, wants and demands to strike some sort of balance,” said Mayor Andrea Davis. “My aim is to provide a compassionate approach with accountability and predictability for the entire community.”

The policy, which ultimately passed on a 10-2 vote, also establishes buffer zones to protect rivers and other sensitive locations. It directs the mayor to explore other services for the homeless as well including storage lockers, temporary bathrooms, and to designate safe overnight parking locations, possibly in church parking lots.

Davis said it remains her desire to establish an authorized camp site, but that remains a challenge. The city has tried it once but without success and funding and staffing the program wasn't cheap.

“I will tell you, sitting in this seat, designating a campsite is not as easy as I thought. There are a lot of considerations in terms of limitations on resources, challenges with implementation, safety, location, service provider capabilities, and capacity. I've had conversations with service providers and I know they want to be at the table to shape this thing, but to initiate it tomorrow is another question all together.”

Funding limitations

Already, the city has poured several million dollars into its homeless efforts in Fiscal Year 24, and funding for FY 25 may be tight, making some directives in the policy difficult to fulfill.

Dale Bickell, the city's CAO, said bathrooms, trash receptacles and needle disposal cost around $100,000 a year. The current city budget also includes $400,000 for camp cleanup, he said, and $630,000 related to security in parks and on other public properties.

The Johnson Street shelter also costs around $1.7 million a year to operate in partnership with the Poverello Center, and staffing for other homeless programs and initiatives costs around $672,000, Bickell said.

“There are other costs. The ordinance has us looking at a lot of programs,” Bickell said. “We'll hopefully have some of those during the budgeting process so we have some ideas of what those programs might cost.”

Davis said she wasn't inclined to add any costs to enforcement but rather, she'll look at ways to provide funding on "proactive" programs such as trash and sharps containers, and bathrooms.

“I agree with council on the intent of updating our statutes that relate to survival camping by moving to initiatives that provide structure, provide policy direction and programs that help our unhoused neighbors, and consider the financial impacts on the FY 25 budget. This is a work in progress,” Davis said.

An ongoing issue

The City Council has grappled with homelessness for years, though the issue was exacerbated by the pandemic. Former Mayor Jordan Hess issued an emergency declaration on homelessness last June, but it has since expired, making it illegal to camp in Missoula's parks and rights-of-way.

Last November, council was set to consider an ordinance that would have made camping legal using a “time, manner and place” structure. But it was taken off the table when Davis announced her intention to establish a working group to explore solutions.

The group met several times over more than 25 hours, resulting in the resolution adopted Monday night, along with the directives the policy includes. While no one described it as a perfect solution, most agreed it was both fair and necessary.

“This ordinance is not the solution,” said City Council President Amber Sherrill. "It's what I believe to be a balanced approach to mitigate the effects of crisis camping in our community, to optimize the usage of our shelter facilities, to decrease health and safety issues, and to protect our environmentally sensitive areas from generational degradation.”

Sherrill also pushed back on claims that the policy “criminalizes homelessness” and that the city's shelters were "at full capacity." One council member who voted against the policy suggested as much in a recent editorial.

“This ordinance does not criminalize homelessness. The tools for enforcement are all civil. They are municipal infractions that don't carry any criminal charges or criminal records,” Sherrill said. “Our shelters are not full. I have seen many things online to say they are, and this is simply not true. We need people to utilize our shelter system. It's a safe option and an option we can offer right now.”

Other community members also backed the policy, saying the city must consider the needs of all city residents while providing a compassionate response to homeless with built-in accountability. Some praised the city's ongoing efforts to seek “compassionate and effective solutions” on the issue.

“At the same time, we must address the negative impacts urban camping is having on our community related to the health, safety and accessibility of residents, families, property owners, employees and visitors,” said Melanie Brock, executive director of the Midtown Association. “Buffer zones to keep the parks and trails clean and accessible is a necessary first step in creating a safer environment for all Missoulians.”

But the policy has proven controversial, and council members Kristen Jordan and Daniel Carlino voted against it. Their effort to strike the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. regulation prohibiting camping in public parks failed.

“If we don't have city campsites in place, won't we be using all our resources and staff time moving people in circles?” said Carlino. “Won't we just be moving people in circles without authorized campsites?”