Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) City officials on Monday night again addressed the growing number of people living in urban camps, saying recent rulings by the Ninth Circuit Court have all but tied their hands.

The city first addressed the issue last week, saying it needed more shelter beds if it's going to move homeless campers out of public spaces. But to provide more shelter the city needs more funding, which it says it doesn't currently have.

“Missoula is experiencing an increase in the number of people looking for shelter in the urban area,” said council member Gwen Jones. “We do not have enough shelter beds to accommodate all unsheltered people in the city.”

The Emergency Winter Shelter closed in mid-April and the city saw an influx of people taking up shelter in urban camps. Jones said the city has been inundated by emails and letters complaining of the resulting mess and the nuisance such camps create.

“A lot of councilors have been getting emails recently on urban camping. We're getting a large volume of complaints,” Jones said. “Staff respond to the complaints as they are able. They can enforce health and safety codes that include the accumulation of garbage, human waste and hypodermic needles. But they are not able to remove people from their tents or vehicles simply for camping.”

A recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit placed limitations on the ability of cities to deal with such encampments. As a result, cities cannot criminalize homelessness, nor can they ticket, arrest or remove people from camping in public places unless there are shelter beds available for those individuals.

City leaders said Missoula needs more shelter space if it hopes to prevent outdoor camps from swelling in the summer months.

“Since we don't have enough shelter beds, we can't remove someone from an encampment in a public space,” Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess said last week. “People need to understand that if we investigate and don't find threats, we cannot ask the campers to leave, nor will we.”

Jones on Monday said the city was aware of the situation and is trying to balance the health and safety risks posed by outdoor urban camps with the complaints of citizens, and do it within the bounds of the law.

All of Missoula's shelters are currently full, officials said.

“People need to be aware there's a law that applies to Missoula, along with other cities across Montana and the eight other states across the West,” Jones said. “Cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they don't have enough homeless shelter beds available for the unhoused population.”