Citing sanitation and safety concerns, along with standing laws, the City of Missoula has been clearing homeless campers daily from a publicly funded nature park off West Broadway, raising the ire of the Poverello Center.
The homeless shelter last week issued a statement saying it was “extremely concerned” about the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, and the number of unsheltered individuals in the city.
It was also concerned about the city’s efforts to keep Broadway Island clear of the same homeless camps that have long been the source of controversy under Reserve Street.
“The tents you are seeing pop up around town are the direct result of people having nowhere else to go,” Amy Allison Thompson, the shelter’s executive director, said in a press release.
Many of those tents are now popping up on Broadway Island, located across the street from the shelter. The city acquired the property in 2011 for roughly $25,000.
Between the recent acquisition, restoration, engineering and bridge work, the new park represents a sum of around $800,000, including roughly $500,000 in tax increment financing. The intent of the investment and restoration was to make the park more inviting to the public.
But for now, it’s more often used as an encampment.
“We are distressed by the recent actions of the Missoula Police Department to clear Broadway Island without other suitable locations for these individuals to go.” Thompson said.
The encampment under the Reserve Street bridge has been around for years. But the City-County Health Department last year fined the land owner – the Montana Department of Transportation – over the garbage and waste created by the camp.
Solutions are still being sought to clear the Reserve Street camp once and for all, and now Broadway Island is facing a similar challenge.
“We’re working on a plan for campers both at the Broadway islands and Reserve Street so unhoused residents can be safe at a temporary, sanctioned facility,” Missoula Mayor John Engen told the Missoula Current. “While we understand the challenges the Poverello faces on a daily basis, we also believe they are integral to helping us solve the problem.”
Engen said he understands Thompson’s frustrations but said they should be “expressed in a collaborative way, not through a short press release.”
He said the city and its partners, including the Poverello, would continue to seek solutions to a challenge faced by cities across the country – one exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The City of Missoula, Missoula County and our partners take very seriously the plight of our residents without stable housing, but have to balance those interests with public safety, including the safety of the unhoused,” Engen said.
“Camping in public parks is against our laws for good reasons around safety and broad public use and enjoyment, but the Broadway islands are not a safe place to camp, nor do they have the facilities to be sanitary.”
According to Thompson, more individuals are living unsheltered due to the closure of Missoula’s emergency winter shelter, capacity limits of the Poverello, and the reversal of the CDC’s moratorium on evictions.
She said a recent report estimated that up to 31,000 individuals are at risk of eviction in Montana, making more people susceptible to experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
“We need to work together to make sure we are addressing the root causes of homelessness like lack of affordable housing, low wages and limited mental health services, instead of targeting those who are the victims of this economic crisis and who live outdoors.”
Engen said the city this week expects to release a plan in response to “the growing need to house our most vulnerable that will provide short- medium and long-term goals for improving lives.”