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Changing face of homelessness seen in Bozeman camper communities

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Posted at 12:37 PM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 14:43:34-04

BOZEMAN — It’s an issue that MTN News has been covering and following closely over the years: homelessness.

In the last few months of the pandemic, the issue has shed light on another part of that issue: those without homes, living in campers and tents in public areas — and it’s not just happening in Bozeman.

Picture a routine drive into Bozeman, whether it is for grocery shopping or avoiding the traffic of busy roads like 7th Avenue.

You may have seen pop-up burgs of campers — and for those who are living inside of them, while many didn’t want to go on camera, they say they are there because they have nowhere left to go.

“It’s a larger problem,” said Marek Ziegler, community resource officer for the Bozeman Police Department. “This is a nationwide problem. This isn’t just a Bozeman problem.”

A corner of a parking lot, or a side road away from main drags. That’s where you might find a dozen or so campers and tents at each of those sites.

To Officer Ziegler, it’s a seemingly growing issue that’s always been there.

“My partner at HRDC is out there with me,” Ziegler said. “We make contact with them and we make sure they are in contact with the right services. We are under a court jurisdiction which falls under the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A couple of years ago, the City of Boise was citing homeless people that were camping in city parks, on city streets. The decision that came down is you are not going to be able to cite homeless people or criminalize homelessness if you have no other alternative to offer them.”

Some, he says, have been there a long time.

“Anything from a few years to — I’ve been a Bozeman resident most of my life and then there are some newcomers,” Ziegler said. “I think it’s a mixture of a lot of things. Me, personally, I think it is a lot of the economy, housing, COVID.”

Spiking rent, increasing unemployment, and, as in August, the median price for a single-family home climbing to around $706,000, bringing to light a misconception Ziegler and his partner are trying to clear up.

“I can tell you, firsthand, that a good amount of them are working; not only working but working two, three jobs and there are families, and we have kids out there, as well,” Ziegler said.

So, they work alongside organizations like Volunteers of America, the Human Resources Development Council and others, along with medical centers from across the area for the same reason. But the issue is still there, at times parked on the roadside.

“We are aware of the situation,” Ziegler said. “We understand their concerns because they are all of our concerns. Currently, there is no magic answer or magic solution to it.”

It’s a story that MTN News will be exploring in the weeks to come in a series detailing what might have first caused these burgs and the experiences of those living in them. And we want to hear from you.