Missoula City Council members defend their vote to ban overnight camping in parks
(Missoula Current) After a hearing that lasted nearly six hours, the Missoula City Council passed an emergency ordinance Monday night stating that not all city lands are closed to overnight camping – a move that permits the city to ban camping in parks.
The decision brought the city in line with a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that a city (Boise in the court case) cannot ban camping in public places unless it can also provide those campers other options.
In Missoula, the Poverello Center is full and the city is unable to fund an additional shelter. While campers can no longer sleep overnight in Missoula parks, they can sleep in other public places and are likely to do so.
The lack of options frustrated all members of council, which passed the emergency ordinance on a 9-1 vote.
Mayor Jordan Hess
"This is a minor surgical change to our code that will result in very minor operational changes on the ground. It won't result in any massive change in way things are done.
"This remains a large and seemingly intractable problem. This has been consuming nearly all of my time. We have been talking about this ad nauseum and we'll continue to do so. This is something we've all be grappling with for a long time and we'll continue to work diligently on it.
“When we brought forward the crisis services levy last year, that was our attempt at creating a long-term funding source. With the way government is funded in Montana, we're not going to be able to fund new or continue government services without voter approval. The same way the school district sees operational levies every year, we're going to be seeing small-scale levies at the local level. We can't fund new programs, so we're going to have to go to the voters. But I don't buy the criticism that there wasn't a long-term plan. The long-term plan failed at the ballot box last year.”
Council member Gwen Jones
“It's absolutely the right thing to do to clean up our code to be in compliance with the Ninth Circuit. Secondly, it's a high priority in our community that we have our parks safe for kids this summer. It's an absolutely reasonable expectation and we should be focusing on that as a high priority.
“To me, the much bigger issue is that while we make sure our parks and commuter trails function this summer, we have a much bigger discussion in terms of housing. The City of Missoula has been working on housing, extensively, far more than any other city in Montana. We've got a housing policy and an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. We've worked on mental health, we've got a crisis intervention team and we have a mobile support team.
“We've done a lot of work in these areas but we need to do a lot more. To me, it's a federal and state problem and I'm not seeing any help from the state come in. We're going to have to work on it at a local level.”
Council member Mike Nugent
“It's so unfortunate we're having this conversation without having some sort of solution tied to it. But we're going to start having these conversations. Some of the potential conversations we could be having have come out in the answers to the questions some of us have asked tonight. There is frustration that we're not having more of those conversations at the council level.
"It's clear that people who are for or against this ordinance have spoken to the things this doesn't do. Very little changes in Missoula with this ordinance. It keeps kids in summer camps in the parks safe, but it's not solving the houseless issue. It's not going to prevent people who don't want to see Missoulians camping in parks from seeing that.
“Last year when we were doing the budget process, there was still the crisis services levy potential on the ballot. It failed. If there's somewhere where we've fallen short, it's that we probably needed to start having those conversations right then. We can push some of these conversations forward as well. It doesn't all need to come to us.”
Council member Daniel Carlino
“I want to point out that specifically to this ordinance, we've gotten far far more email comments, public comments against the ordinance than for it, by a large margin. The public comments have been overly against passing this ordinance. People's comments to City Council in general have been very very in favor of us doing more to help the homeless and ensure everyone in our community feels safe.
“It would be a lot easier if we vote to fund shelter and housing and things like that rather than voting to fund moving people around and cleaning things up, police and fire, all our service providers, like, they're all having a much tougher time with this current situation.”
Council member Sandra Vasecka
“I did talk to a lot of folks. I got a lot of phone calls and text messages and just talking to people on the street who were very much in favor of this ordinance.”
Council member Heidi West
“A simple no vote would keep camping illegal in all public spaces, and I think that's something that's intentionally getting lost in some of the comments. This moves us toward criminalizing homeless less as a community overall.
“The quickest way to destroy the vibrancy and vitality of a community is to become hyper focused on a single issue at the expense of everything else in the community. I'm afraid that maybe that's where we're going with this. We can't just focus on one thing and maintain a thriving community. We are more than just an expensive place to live. We need to stay more than an expensive place to live.
“This isn't a housing policy. It doesn't pretend to be a housing policy. It's a policy that is directed specifically at parks, trails and our open lands to make sure they're safe and open and welcoming to a diversity of user groups.”
Council member Stacie Anderson
"As we often find on council, the conversation of what's actually directly in front of us gets washed away with the larger context that these larger issues fall into. This issue, it's hard to not talk about the larger systemic issues of the unhoused in our community. But right now, we're talking about a park ordinance.
"This doesn't give any new powers to parks. It cleans up language and allows them to enforce the parts that have been on the books for quite some time. It helps balance the uses of our parks in the summer when we see most use by families and children.
"There is the realization that parks are being used by all Missoulians, housed or unhoused. We're talking about specific behaviors that are inappropriate. There are things like human waste, needles, and inappropriate behaviors."
Council member Jennifer Savage
"I'm dissapointed that we haven't spent this much time talking about real, comprehensive solutions. We don't have a plan but it's clear that we do have an emergency.
"Amending this ordinance feels piecemeal to me. It doesn't feel holistic. I'm weary of hearing 'we can't, because.' I'd like us to look at these projects from a holistic way.
"I will own my own responsibility in not bringing those things forward. I've been looking to staff to bring solutions to these big, intractable problems. We don't have to wait for them to come to us. These are problems we should be really spending a lot more time talking about instead of nuances around language."
Council member Amber Sherrill
"I agree this is a product of systemic failure nationwide. We need more options, and we need more shelter beds – that's the bottom line. We've gotten really off topic with this ordinance specifically tonight but not off topic on the crisis we're dealing with. This is just a way we're going to be able to balance the needs of all our different constituents in the community this summer. I'm looking forward to what the other pieces of this are when they come to us.”
Council member Mirtha Becerra
"I think this ordinance is a good balance between providing a safe environment for all Missoula residents, both housed and unhoused, and bringing us into compliance with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Houslessness is a system failure, and it's going to take a system reboot for us to begin fixing it. Until that happens, we need to have more conversations about how we go about managing this crisis in our community.
“While we're not solving the issue, I think we've made significant progress at identifying funding sources that we can tap into, creating coalitions in our community and relying on those collaborations between agencies across our community.
“We need to continue to focus on housing first and finding a place for our unhoused members of the community to rest at night and permanently find a place for them to live. It's where need to be focused.”