MISSOULA — The Missoula Police Department eased up enforcement of illegal camping in the city as Missoula's homeless shelter was at full capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
MTN News then reported on a public health and safety hazard as a "tent city" popped up right outside of the Poverello Center.
Now, with the introduction of a new, legal camping site near Reserve Street – Missoula Police tell us enforcement is back to how it was pre-pandemic, and officers are issuing citations for camping in the city.
Camping vehicles can be seen parked on the side of the road in all areas of Missoula. It’s a sign that many people experiencing homelessness have limited options for where to go.
"What we’re hoping with designated camping areas, reduced restrictions due to COVID cases hopefully declining very soon, that there will be locations for people to stay, and we’re hoping that we won’t see an increase in those calls for service,” explained Missoula Police Department spokesman Detective Lt. Eddie McLean.
McLean told MTN News that the number of calls for service — where homeless people are camping or staying somewhere illegally -- can vary, “they range from year to year."
He doesn't have specific numbers, but one thing's for sure — in Missoula, people live in vehicles, tents, and trailers -- and they park where they can. But oftentimes, that's against city ordinance.
Missoula City Ordinance 9.34.040 states "it is unlawful for any person to sit, lie or sleep upon any street or alley within the city limits of Missoula."
Additionally, City Ordinance 10.22.190 states "no person shall occupy a recreational vehicle parked on a public street, road, alley, boulevard, or median in the city."
"Generally, it takes citizens or business owners informing us that a violation like that is occurring,” McLean explained, adding that MPD takes calls as they come in.
People can be cited but are typically not arrested or taken to jail, according to McLean, "if a person's trespassing, they're going to be criminally charged for trespassing if they refuse to vacate the property."
McLean says when Missoula Police respond to these types of calls, officers will now encourage people to move to the camping site on Clark Fork Lane.
"Education pretty much just lies with informing them of the services that are offered for them,” McLean explained. “But we are taking a very proactive enforcement role initially on our responses to that area so that people utilize the facility as it's planned."
The campsite is operated by the city, and Rogers International Security is on-site. Additionally, the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office will respond to handle criminal and legal issues if they are contacted.
"We work well with our community partners, and MPS puts in input on any issues that could come up, those decisions are made outside the police dept we just work cooperatively with our community partners in order to have all those projects be as successful as possible,” McLean concluded.