MISSOULA — Missoula City and County officials are continuing to address the issue of homelessness, as illegal camping causes more public health and safety concerns.
MTN News asked the Missoula City Fire Department for data on the number of times they responded to the Reserve Street Bridge.
There have been 30 fires near the bridge since the start of this year, mostly unauthorized burning and trash fires. The top calls were 14 for unauthorized burning and 11 calls for outside trash fires. Other calls were for brush fires, dumpster fires and smoke scares.
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Officials recently announced they are looking into three potential sites for people experiencing homelessness to relocate to legally, before removing the illegal encampment under the bridge.
institute three new shelters across Missoula County, before removing the illegal encampment under the bridge. Now, they say they just hope that will help.
We asked Montana Department of Transportation Missoula District Administrator Bob Vosen how long have people been camping in this area.
“I've been in the role here as the administrator for a little over two years, two and a half years. Prior to that, I was a construction engineer. And people have been camping on and off in that area for that duration. It seems like in the last few years the numbers have definitely increased drastically, though.”
Vosen says it's time to do something about the homeless camp under the Reserve Street Bridge.
"It's a really difficult area for first responders, whether it's EMTs or fire to respond to down there. It's hard to access, it's hard to clean up."
Vosen told MTN News fires occur often in the area blocking off traffic on one of Missoula’s busiest roads and also causes concern for the infrastructure. "It's just not a great place for activities like this to be taking place."
Now, MDT, the city, and the county are working on a plan to remove the illegal campers. "I think it just took a long time for all the parts and pieces to be put together,” Vosen said.
But first, there has to be a place for them to go. During a July 15 public meeting, Missoula County commissioners clarified why that is the case.
“We can not arrest people or charge them for trespassing or illegally trespassing on public land without providing an alternative,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick explained. “So, what we are doing now is creating that alternative.”
Some of the land under the Reserve Street Bridge is public and some of it is privately owned. Public records show one section is owned by the City of Missoula and another by MDT.
“It is public property, but camping is not an acceptable use any longer,” Vosen noted.
A few weeks ago we showed you the three lots officials are eyeing as potential future shelters. Since that time, Missoula has spoken out.
"Many of the comments in opposition believe that Missoula is more likely to become the next Portland or Seattle -- especially if more services are provided,” Missoula County Chief Administrative Officer Chris Lounsbury said during the meeting.
But Missoula's elected officials say we should provide a safe place to live for every community member. Some of the people making public comments said officials should arrest or bus the homeless to neighboring cities.
"Abhorrent, and absolutely unacceptable, we're not going to criminalize homelessness," Missoula County Commission Dave Strohmaier said.
But, once there are more shelters in place, officials say law enforcement will be able to enforce trespassing.
“By doing nothing, we will get a product that is far worse than what we are seeing on the ground today,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said at the meeting.
The public comment period is technically closed, but comments can still be emailed to email@example.com. Both the city and county are continuing to look at shelter solutions. Click here for additional information.