MISSOULA — Activists pressing for change along North Reserve Street and social service providers have found themselves at odds over one group’s plan to enter and clean a homeless camp near the Clark Fork River.
“Let’s improve Missoula’s Reserve Street,” a Facebook group moderated by businessman Kevin Davis, posted drone images of the camp to its page and is organizing a “cleanup” next week.
That cleanup was initially billed as a “clearing.”
“My overall objective is that Missoula remains a desirable place where my kids and their kids will want to live in 10 to 20 years,” Davis told the Missoula Current on Thursday. “We’ve got hardworking professionals in Missoula trying to address this issue, but I think additional solutions and additional input needs to be considered.”
In an email exchange with United Way of Missoula County, Davis said it was “shocking that we have a year-round encampment on public land along the river … too dangerous and unsanitary for the community to appreciate.”
While his group’s Facebook page initially included the goal of clearing the camp, it has since been redefined as a cleanup. Davis said it’s his desire to work “with other agencies to help steer occupants of the Reserve Street camp to safe shelters and housing options.”
He said his group’s cleanup volunteers are looking to interact with the camp’s residents to fully understand the challenges they face.
“That’s critical data I think we’re missing today,” he said. “Why are they there? Where are they from? How long are they there? We understand the realities of affordable housing and the challenges Missoula has with homelessness and trying to end homelessness under the 10-year plan. But with that information, I think we can do a better job in Missoula than sourcing permanent housing.”
The organization’s event post to Facebook has drawn backlash from social service providers, including Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County.
Patrick said a wholesale clearing or cleanup by untrained volunteers “who have given themselves the authority to engage in this effort” could place those volunteers in danger. Some of the camp’s residents may be resistant to such efforts, she and other local experts have warned.
“I’m concerned about an untrained, unauthorized group of citizens going into a camp, which the people who live there consider their home, for better or for worse,” Patrick said. “Their stated intent is not just to clean it, but to clear it, without working with the cadre of social service providers who are building relationships, spending time in the camp on a regular basis, and building the kind of trusting relationships that get people out of the camp and into housing appropriate for their situation.”
Patrick said some of the camp’s residents suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues. Removing their belongings, or “bullying them into leaving,” could lead to conflict and place others in danger, she said.
The camp has seen its share of violent crime in recent years, including the 2014 shooting death of Gilbert Barry, whose body was dumped in the river. A number of rapes and assaults have also occurred below the bridge, and the collection of garbage and human waste left by campers remains a concern.
The group’s plan to “steer occupants … to safe shelters and housing options” also concerns social service providers. Patrick said local experts, including the Poverello Center’s Homeless Outreach Team, work closely with camp’s occupants on a regular basis, and they would have already found them housing if it were that simple.
“None of us want people living in a camp on Reserve Street for a number of reasons,” Patrick said. “It’s not good for our community, and it’s especially not good for the people living there. But the fact is, there’s no place for them to go.”
Patrick said the challenge highlights the need for low-barrier housing in Missoula with wraparound services.
“I’m sure a lot of people would just say we should get them on a bus and get them out of town,” she said. “But I don’t subscribe to the theory that making our problem someone else’s problem is a healthy or community-building way to approach anything in life. I am curious about where they think these people will go.”
Davis offered no solutions to the housing issue, but said he tried to organize a similar event in April. Local law enforcement urged him to reconsider his plans and he postponed the event.
But the camp’s longevity and its impacts on the area remain a growing source of frustration. Davis and others have seen little improvement, despite local efforts to address the problem.
Davis said he recently hosted friends from Seattle who were looking for close and easy access to the river. They found themselves behind the Walmart off Reserve Street, thinking they could sit on the bank and enjoy the day.
“They were like, “Whoa, this isn’t safe,’ “ Davis said. “There were people with shopping carts right there looking like they were dealing drugs, and across the river there’s permanent homeless structures with solar panels supported by pallets, a clear indication this isn’t a temporary deal. Many of us believe there can be an alternate place for the camp occupants to go rather than for Missoula to see this resurgence of the camp year after year.”
Patrick said she understands the group’s frustrations, but believes its solutions are naive and ill conceived.
“To give themselves the authority to do this is probably well intentioned, but misguided, and it risks the safety of the people in the camps and the people who want to clean up the camps,” she said.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about homelessness and homeless people, but it remains a deeply frustrating challenge for communities nationwide, including Missoula. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and a wholesale cleanup of what people consider their homes, like it or not, isn’t the answer.”
-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current