Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With Missoula's Authorized Camp Site closing next month, some have expressed concern that it could lead to a resurgence in illegal camping on public land in other parts of the city and county.

But city and county officials both suggest that other options for the homeless remain available and, because of it, issues of public health and safety will be enforced, including illegal camping.

“Regardless of the alternatives that have been available, Missoula has taken a position that camping in itself is not illegal,” said city CAO Dale Bickell. “It's when it becomes a public nuisance or a public health and safety issue. Closure of the Authorized Camp Site doesn't affect our procedures related to that.”

Back in April, the Missoula County Attorney's Office issued formal notice to Missoula County of a lawsuit filed by the Montana Department of Transportation related to illegal camping under the Reserve Street Bridge.

The suit included five counts including trespass, a claim for public and private nuisance, a request for injunction, and declaratory action. The county said MDT secured the order to allow the sheriff's office to assist them in clearing several dozen homeless camps from under the Reserve Street Bridge and to direct the residents to the newly opened Authorized Camp Site across the river.

The following month, the county ratified a state of emergency declaring a hazardous waste threat stemming from garbage left at the illegal camp. Aided by front-end loaders and dump trucks, county and city staff removed an estimated 40 tons of debris from the camp – an effort that included a cable and barge to ferry debris across the river.

When directing funding to open the Authorized Camp Site, county officials pledged to enforce camping under the Reserve Street Bridge. Before the Authorized Camp Site opened, they were unable to do so under a Ninth Circuit Court decision without first providing other options for the homeless.

While the Authorized Camp Site will close on Dec. 16, the Emergency Winter Shelter will open on Oct. 31, and it will provide that other option. County officials on Thursday said the winter shelter will enable law enforcement to continue enforcing camping restrictions under the bridge and on public land in general.

“There's another place for the same folks to be. It's just a different place, but the same population could be housed in that space,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick said of the Emergency Winter Shelter. “Given that we have a place for people to be, we can enforce illegal camping on public land.”