MISSOULA — Missoula leaders hope a new initiative will create ideas to not only solve the problems caused by homeless camps, but find ways to help people get off the street as they face the worst problem with homelessness of any Montana cities.
Although it's always hard to get an accurate census on the homeless population, Missoula agencies do conduct an annual count as part of the Montana Point in Time Survey, which provides a benchmark used in planning services.
Missoula leaders say the most recent numbers show 400 homeless but some anecdotal estimates have placed that number as high as 1,000 this year, reflecting what they see as impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic's economic fallout, and rising housing costs.
Faced with the worst homeless problem of any of Montana's cities, Missoula leaders hope a new combined initiative will create ideas to not only solve the problems caused by homeless camps, but finding ways to help people get off the street.
Just weeks after celebrating the accomplishments of Missoula's "Reaching Home", the 10-year plan to end homelessness, city and county leaders are admitting there's still a lot more to do. That's especially true as Missoula starts to see more of the impacts already seen elsewhere in the West, larger homeless camps, and people crowding into makeshift shelters everywhere.
“So we are experiencing a public health, a humanitarian and environmental crisis on the streets and within the parks of our community," said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. "By standing up this Incident Management Team, we are bringing the focused resources necessary to avoid just a lot of good intentions and diffuse effort.”
Monday, Mayor John Engen and the Missoula County commissioners told reporters, and other bystanders, they're going to use that same "incident management" structure effective in floods and fires, to marshal resources.
That could build on ideas, such as the temporary camp set up last winter off Highway 93 south, in place of the camps like along the Clark Fork at Reserve Street, where there have been dangers from sanitation to rescues.
“When people are camping illegally in the urban wild, they create a level of squalor and environmental degradation that is not tolerable," said County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. "When people camp illegally in the urban wild, they live in that squalor and they cannot move their own lives forward.”
Strohmaier also noted the health concerns. "We've also heard loud and clear from our very own City-County Public health Department that there are sanitation issues that just simply cannot go on any longer.”
Engen believes if the homeless are given secure options they'll take them.
"Living on the street as a choice is a myth and I think it's been dispelled over and over again, and I think we attach moral judgment to human circumstance," he observed. "And I guarantee you that that most of the folks who are living on the street today wouldn't be living on the street if there were alternatives available to them, and we're going to provide those.”
Although part of the action plan calls on enforcing a ban on illegal urban camping, officials say they aren't going to "chase" anyone out of Missoula.
“We're not arresting people. We're not chasing them off," emphasized Slotnick. "What we're gonna do is we're going to create alternative housing, the alternative to what people have right now, which is a tent. And then invite them to come with us and not until we have a place for people to go. We will go to Reserve Street and invite people to come with us.”
Engen also promised the city will do a better job of informing people before the city moves in to clean up a camp, saying last week's sudden closure and cleanup at West Broadway Island was "his mistake".