As many families settled in for the Thanksgiving Day weekend, housing advocates gathered in a brisk winter wind west of Missoula on Wednesday to celebrate the makings of a homeless camp.
The camp wouldn’t be necessary in a perfect world, but with the pandemic surging and the city’s homeless shelters at capacity, the facility is seen as a temporary solution to what most agree is a larger problem.
“We know it’s not the answer,” said Susan Hay Patrick, the CEO of the United Way of Missoula County. “It’s a temporary solution to a cold COVID winter and a safer, healthier alternative for people who have no place else to go.”
When the pandemic hit, the Poverello Center was forced to reduce capacity to around 88 people for safety reasons. The city opened a second shelter on Johnson Street to accommodate more individuals, though that shelter also is at capacity, housing around 90 people a night.
With space limited and options few, the illegal Reserve Street homeless camp has served as a defacto location for those needing shelter. The Montana Department of Transportation, which owns the property where the camp has swelled, is under pressure to close it down.
Private and nonprofit community partners saw an opportunity and a need to open a sanctioned homeless camp at another location. It found support from a landowner willing to contribute to the cause.
“The stars aligned for this to happen, but it’s not a long-term solution,” said County Commissioner Juanita Vero. “It’s a temporary band aide in an emergency situation. This specific project is a temporary action that can be done coming into winter.”
Amid passing snow squalls and a cold November wind, a number of partners teamed up on Wednesday to begin constructing the camp. The open field had been graded level and two outhouses had been placed on the site to provide proper sanitation – something lacking in the Reserve Street camp.
Eventually, the site will include 20 tents containing two individuals for a capacity of 40 campers. Each tent is set on an insulated platform, and the platforms are set off the ground on concrete blocks. The camp will also include a medical tent and several service tents for meals.
With the homeless population growing during the pandemic, project advocates are eager to get the camp open and occupied. It’s seen a safe and secure option to the Reserve Street camp, which has witnessed its share of both petty and violent crimes in recent years.
“When COVID hit, we found ourselves as outreach workers a little overwhelmed with the number of homeless out there,” said April Seat, director of outreach for the Hope Rescue Mission. “Through what I’ve seen and the feedback I get from the folks that are staying in that (Reserve Street) area, this is something that’s greatly needed.”
Seat, who will serve as the camp’s site director, has worked with Hope Rescue Mission for roughly five years. She feels committed to the cause, saying “it’s in my heart” to continue serving the city’s homeless population, especially during the challenges presented by the pandemic.
“There is addiction. There’s folks who struggle with PTSD and mental health. Those are the ones who might want to be in this area,” said Seat. “But for the most part, a lot of the folks who live at Reserve Street have jobs and don’t want to be in that situation. This is a great way for them to be safe in a managed area.”
Patrick, who anticipated criticism and push back during last week’s announcement when plans for the camp were made public, also has focused on serving the homeless population for the past many years.
While the camp will provide a temporary solution, the need to end homelessness won’t go away. The only way to solve it, Patrick said, is with housing.
“Everyone is homeless for different reasons, some by their own hand and some by the hand they’ve been dealt,” Patrick said. “The fact is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I do believe we can end homelessness and by that, I mean make it rare, brief and non-recurring. But we as a community and as a country have yet to marshal the collective will to make that happen.”
It hasn’t yet been determined when or how the Reserve Street camp will close, and how its occupants will be redirected or transported to the new camp, which sits around five miles away on the other side of the city.
But advocates hope to open the facility next week once the county addresses lingering issues around zoning. Commissioners this week discussed that issue and will likely use their authority to issue emergency zoning to accommodate the camp.
“It’s really fantastic, and in the scheme of the other outdoor spaces that have been established around the country, we’re well ahead of schedule,” said Ashely Corbally, project coordinator with the Hope Rescue Mission. “Opening is still a moving target. There are some things we need to work through with the zoning that need to be hammered out.”