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Arctic blast: Homeless advocates move most occupants of Missoula’s outdoor camp into hotels

Posted at 5:32 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 21:52:11-05

MISSOULA — With sub-zero temperatures and frigid winds, homeless advocates on Thursday expressed concern over the safety of residents remaining at Missoula’s secure outdoor tent camp set up to house a small population of homeless.

In the first true arctic blast of the season, temperatures in Missoula hit zero degrees on Thursday morning, though that may be warm compared to the coming days.

Temperatures are expected to fall to minus 7 degrees into the weekend, and the National Weather Service on Thursday issued both a winter weather advisory and severe wild chill warning into Saturday morning.

That has raised concerns over the safety of residents who remain at the outdoor camp on the city’s south side.

“They put some people into hotels for a couple of days,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It’s still staffed. It’s still secured. Residents have been taken to hotels for a couple days, and their belongings are safe in locked lockers.”

With pressure mounting to close the illegal Reserve Street homeless camp – and with shelter space limited – community partners in November opened a legal camp on the south side of Missoula. It offers tent shelter in a secure environment to the area’s unhoused homeless population.

The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space can accommodate roughly 40 occupants, though in mid-December it housed around 20 people.

Anne Hughes, the county’s chief operating officer, said some residents have chosen to stay in the camp, despite the weather.

“It’s a choice they’re making to stay,” Hughes said. “We’re concerned about that.”

Hughes said partners in the camp, including the United Way of Missoula County, also learned that area hotels can’t or won’t accept the camp’s homeless occupants without identification. One of the barriers to many homeless is the lack of identification or official paperwork, both of which are needed to access a wide variety of services.

“There’s some hiccup in hotels not being able to accept people without identification,” said Hughes. “That came to light today in our winter shelter call. I’m working with folks at the city housing office to try to work that out. They’re trying to resolve it, to see if there’s some form of agreement they can set up.”

The National Weather Service in Missoula warned of life-threatening wind chill factors as low as minus 35 degrees. The winter weather advisory predicted another one to three inches of snow and possible blizzard conditions.

Hughes said a number of advocates are working to get the camp’s remaining occupants sheltered, or ensure they have the resources needed to stay warm and safe in the camp.

“They have enough propane and firework,” Hughes said. “The folks running the TSOS are supporting the folks staying there, and we’re trying to get them some hot food delivered.”