Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Citing a desire to balance the needs of both the housed and unhoused while also protecting the environment and local businesses, the City of Missoula on Tuesday unveiled the framework of a new strategy intended to address “crisis camping.”

The recommendations were adopted by a working group appointed by Mayor Andrea Davis and, together, they comprise a detailed resolution the City Council will consider adopting this week.

“This is only the start of a process,” Davis said. “We're certainly committed to working on this with the aim of getting people connected to shelter and ultimately to get a roof over their head and the necessary services to help them stabilize.”

The working group appointed by the mayor met for five lengthy sessions over several months. And while agreement wasn't always unanimous, the group condensed its work into a resolution that both establishes the issues around crisis camping and offers recommendations for the city to consider.

Among other things, the resolution directs the mayor to investigate establishing an authorized camp site, and to develop a plan for supportive services, including sanitation and needle disposal bins. It also directs the city to explore a safe parking or parking permit plan with the private sector.

While some strategies would take time to develop and implement – if funding can be found – the recommendations also provide some low-hanging fruit, including trash and needle receptacles and access to better sanitation. Davis said she'll also set up a hygiene task force and work to establish a storage strategy for the unhoused.

“We can put some immediate things in place while also working on short-, mid- and long-term initiatives,” Davis said. “I anticipate there will be new policies coming shortly, and the administration and City Council leadership will be working on those together.”

The recommendations

The recommendations also come with enforcement tools and it clearly states where crisis camping cannot occur. If adopted, it would prohibit camping in designated areas, including parks with heavy summer activities and within 100 feet of playgrounds.

It also would prohibit camping 50 feet from rivers and creeks, 10 feet from any trail or bike path, 300 feet from any school or daycare, 1,000 feet from any shelter, and 100 feet from residential and commercial properties. It also bars camping on the city's conservation lands.

But for those who are unable to access shelter, the resolution would allow the homeless to camp on city-owned property outside the stated buffer zones from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

“It will be required that they do not put up permanent or hard-sided structures, and that they clean up their camps and pack their tents by 8 a.m.,” said City Council President Amber Sherrill. “We believe this strikes a reasonable balance between responding to community concerns, keeping our amenities usable for all, and protecting our waterways while also continuing to provide shelter facilities and allowing those unable to access shelter to camp overnight.”

Both Davis and Sherrill said the timing of the resolution and action was urgent. Students are set to leave school for the summer and summer camps are set to begin. The tourist season will also get underway, providing vital income to local businesses. Local residents will also take to the river for summer recreation.

Safety has emerged as a top community issue and city leaders look to address those concerns with the proposed recommendations.

“We believe these (homeless) strategies are critical, but we also understand that it's neither practical nor feasible to set up immediately,” said Sherrill. “But summer is upon us and there's an urgent need for action. This resolution recognizes that these spaces are important to our community.”

Members of Mayor's Task Force on Urban Camping hold a meeting to explore ways to address "crisis camping." (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Members of Mayor's Task Force on Urban Camping hold a meeting to explore ways to address "crisis camping." (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Funding may be challenging

Crafting the ordinance and its recommendations took months to achieve and now, the city must find ways to fund the programs. It used what remained of its American Rescue Plan Act funding last year to open the Johnson Street Shelter for a full year.

The shelter is set to close this fall unless a new pot of funding is found. Other programs, such as the recommended authorized camp site, security, staffing, cleanup, hygiene and enforcement tools also carry a cost.

The city has yet to place a price tag on the recommendations or the cost of implementing them, but operating the Johnson Street Shelter for another year is a top priority, Davis said.

“Right now we're looking at the potential for one-time funding or other ways we can keep the Johnson Street Shelter open for one year,” said Davis. “We'll be looking to our existing budget and how we have funded our response to unsheltered encampments to date.”

Davis said potential funding sources, outside of a grant, could include the city's park and road districts. Funding from the two districts is already being used to clean abandoned camps, provide security and other needs.

The city could also move funding within its general fund as the budgeting season continues.

“This issue isn't going to go away just because people don't want it to be here. This is a nationwide crisis. We're not alone,” said Sherrill. “We need to figure out what's feasible to fund as we move forward.”