Facing potential fines and penalties from the Missoula City-County Health Department, the Montana Department of Transportation continues to search for a solution to the mounting collection of waste generated by the homeless encampment under the Reserve Street Bridge.
While simply evicting the trespassers from state-owned property would be the easiest solution, that has drawn opposition from homeless advocates, leaving MDT in a bind.
“It’s been pretty clear that a fence and the relocation of the inhabitants there at the encampment isn’t acceptable at this time,” said Bob Vosen, the Missoula District administrator for MDT. “We’re trying to figure out what that means for us from a safety standpoint. We’re trying to figure out what we need to do to protect that infrastructure.”
Aside from compounding fines from health officials who have already issued notice regarding garbage and human waste in the riverbed area, Vosen is also concerned about the integrity of the bridge itself.
The corridor is the busiest in Missoula, supporting thousands of vehicle trips a day. It serves as vital infrastructure for north-south traffic and is one of just four auto-oriented bridges across the Clark Fork River in Missoula.
Several fires have started under the bridge, and that concerns transportation officials.
“We’ve had yet another fire under the bridge. We’re kind of struggling to figure out what we need to do to protect that infrastructure,” Vosen said. “It’s just a matter of time before one of those fires gets hot enough and we end up with a situation where we end up looking at a closure of the bridge.”
Volunteers each year have done their best to remove truckloads of garbage from the site, but even that can’t keep pace with the rate of disposal. The area is littered with everything from discarded camping equipment to plastic, shopping carts, building materials and personal effects.
The City-County Health Department also is concerned about the amount of human waste and other garbage present at the site. It’s what prompted the notice of violation to begin with, and MDT has until November to resolve the problem.
Taxpayers will be charged with the cleanup.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of money to clean up the area, and now we’re going to have to do it while we’re navigating the encampment,” Vosen said. “We need to get in there and clean it up, or I’m facing significant fines by the day. We’re going to have to clean up stuff from people who don’t want us in the area.”
Vosen is also worried about other hazardous items at the encampment, including drug paraphernalia.
“I’m not putting my staff in a position where they have to clean up needles and human waste. It’s not what they signed up for,” he said. “We’re going to try to find a contractor to do it, but I have no idea where you find a contractor to pick up drug paraphernalia, human waste and the general trash and debris down there.”
At past cleanup efforts, Vosen said crews used leaf rakes to rake needles from the sand and dirt. The quantity of paraphernalia filled a truck bed. And with changing river channels, he said getting heavy equipment in will be difficult, if not impossible.
While it may come down to putting up a fence, that also presents challenges. A fence can’t be erected in the flood plane, Vosen said.
With the pandemic, homeless advocates have been firm in their resistance to calls to move the occupants from camp on to another location. Such a location doesn’t currently exist in Missoula, they claim, and with the pandemic, the challenge of finding suitable housing would be doubly difficult.
“It’s super frustrating, and we’re not abandoning you,” said Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero. “We’ll keep working forward to achieve something.”
Vosen said the clock is ticking before the fines begin to accumulate.
“It’s an extremely challenging situation,” he said. “We recognize the additional difficulty of dealing with the COVID situation. Hopefully something can come to pass with some of these housing options. I know a bunch of different groups are working on.”