Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The mayor's effort to strike a balance in dealing with homeless camping in Missoula's public spaces, address safety and provide shelter to those in need left one council member erupting into an outburst and quitting the meeting while nine other council members eventually voted to move the issue to further discussion and a vote.

Missoula Mayor Andrea Davis and City Council President Amber Sherrill, along with a delegation of several other council members, sponsored a resolution that considered the wide array of opinions and recommendations presented by the mayor's diverse working group on urban camping.

The resulting document, released on Tuesday during a press conference and debated on Wednesday, was pegged by sponsors as a “reasonable balance” between public safety, the preservation of public spaces, and the need to accommodate the homeless who can't or won't stay in one of the city's shelters.

Davis defended the proposed policy again during Wednesday's contentious hearing, despite outbursts from one City Council member and the objection of another.

“We need to work together to figure out how to implement these in phases. This resolution is just step one. It's a policy directive,” Davis said. “It does clarify some urgent needs we've heard from the community, time and time again, around how we can create some spaces where we have challenges with folks living unsheltered outside.”

Those public safety concerns have grown more acute over the past year as drug needles accumulate on trails and in public parks. Vandalism around certain homeless shelters has left residential and business neighbors concerned.

Drug needles near a Missoula park occupied by urban campers. (Courtesy photo)
Drug needles near a Missoula park occupied by homeless campers. (Courtesy photo)

Some also have expressed concerns for their safety and unwillingness to use parks and trails – funded by taxpayers – due to the perceived threat posed by some unhoused campers. The proposed resolution looks to address those concerns while also acknowledging the needs of the homeless who choose to live outside of existing taxpayer funded shelters.

The Johnson Street Shelter is operating on a year-round basis at a cost of $1.7 million dollars annually and has room for more residents, city officials have said.

“The Johnson Street Shelter isn't full. We still have a lot of people still staying there. But there's still space in there for people seeking shelter,” said Sherrill. “This crisis has been decades in the making and is a problem our country will be working on for a long, long time to come. This resolution sets up some directives from City Council to the mayor.”

Among other things, the directives recommended by the mayor's working group and supported by a majority of City Council members direct the mayor to explore setting up an authorized camp site. They also direct the mayor to develop a plan for supportive services, such as more bathroom facilities, trash collection, locking storage areas and needle drops.

“It's balancing the needs of all citizens with the resources we have,” said council member Stacy Anderson.

The proposals have been broken down into short-, medium- and long-term objectives that could be implemented as public funding allows. But some council members lambasted the proposal on Wednesday.

Council member Kristen Jordan, who has proposed many of the recommendations included in the proposal in the past, including authorized camp sites and needle drops, broke into an outburst on Wednesday, grabbed her purse and darted from the meeting while cussing her peers.

"I'm not voting," she shouted. "Bullshit. Bull fucking bullshit!"

Jordan was absent when votes were tallied. But other council members expressed support for the proposal, seeing it as a balance between the needs of the homeless, local businesses, the safety of children in summer parks and residents at large.

“I know we're going to disagree on the path we're taking, which me and others on the council see as a common goal, and that is to find solutions and alternatives for our unhoused neighbors in our community," said council member Mirtha Becerra. "This resolution, in my mind, is one step we're committed to taking to address this balance. It's a way to find temporary balance between users of our parks, trails and rivers, and to direct the mayor to start work that came out of the working group."

If adopted, the resolution would prohibit camping in designated areas, including parks with heavy summer and youth activities, and within 100 feet of playgrounds.

It also would prohibit camping 50 feet from rivers and creeks, 10 feet from any trail or bike path, 300 feet from any school or daycare, 1,000 feet from any shelter, and 100 feet from residential and commercial properties. It also bars camping on the city's conservation lands.

But for those who are unable to access shelter, the resolution would allow the homeless to camp on city-owned property outside the stated buffer zones from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

The mayor and other council members said the recommendations will take time and funding to implement. But some expressed displeasure for the proposal, particularly around the restrictions on homeless camping in public spaces.

“How will people who need somewhere to camp know where these designated areas are without a map?" asked council member Daniel Carlino. "How will our law enforcement know where people are able and not able to camp without bringing out some sort of measuring tool? How will people that need somewhere to camp know what's outside the buffer zone?"