After exploring its options and several fires, the Montana Department of Transportation on Wednesday said it will erect a fence under the Reserve Street bridge and begin moving illegal campers to an alternative site once it’s established by the city and county of Missoula.
The decision comes as local government and their partners look to expand the shelter options for homeless individuals, including a sanctioned outdoor camp behind the Super Walmart, transitional housing and a safe outdoor camp at another location in the city.
“The Reserve Street Bridge is a community challenge that needs a community solution,” said Bob Vosen, MDT Missoula District administrator. “We have actively been working with our community partners to come closer to a solution, and adding this fencing is a big step in the right direction.”
MDT and local government officials and homeless advocates have for the last two years worked to find an option to the illegal Reserve Street homeless camp. A year ago, the City-County Health Department issued a notice to MDT regarding the accumulation of waste and garbage in the camp, and it gave the state agency until winter to resolve the problem.
Later that year, a group of community partners opened a temporary safe outdoor camp off Highway 93 on the city’s south side. Still, the Reserve Street camp persisted and four fires have recently been reported under the structure.
“MDT’s role in this process is to protect our infrastructure,” Vosen said. “It’s now more critical than ever to prevent catastrophic damage while also supporting the work of our partners and those experiencing homelessness in the area.”
Vosen said those seeking shelter in the area will not be asked to leave immediately. Rather, law enforcement will patrol the area while fencing is installed, but they will not remove campers.
MDT said trespassing will be enforced only when a sanction site is available. MDT will then work with community partners to ensure what it called empathetic enforcement.
Earlier this month, the city and county of Missoula agreed to explore the recommendations of a task force assigned with finding shelter options for the area’s homeless residents, especially as capacity limits remain in place due to coronavirus concerns.
One of those options include a sanctioned site that could serve as a legal, minimally supported campground. It would effectively replace the illegal campsite under the Reserve Street bridge.
Adrian Beck, the director of emergency management in Missoula County and head of the incident management team assigned to the shelter task, said city property on Clark Fork Lane behind the Super Walmart on North Reserve is the preferred site.
“If we’re trying to address illegal camping in the urban wild, we need to be intentional about whether it’s easy to find,” Beck said recently. “This other location, wherever it is, needs to be easy to find, and it needs to be accessible to emergency services.”
MDT said the fence will run the length of the bridge on either side of the Clark Fork River. It will have six gates to allow access for maintenance and emergency services. Construction is set to begin next month.
“We can’t keep rolling the dice on protecting our most vital infrastructure system,” Vosen said.