The couple living in the 1986 tan and orange Bounder RV wouldn’t leave.
The RV was parked on South Catlin Street last fall, and it quickly became clear to a manager at a nearby business they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
For more than two weeks, the manager said, John Ulrigg and Marcynda Hammond powered their recreational vehicle with jumper cables, keeping a car running for hours. Junk piled up around the RV, and the two dumped their trash in garbage cans of nearby companies.
The manager was warned by the city of Missoula not to confront Ulrigg because of his history of anger and retaliation against those who report him to the police. The business manager is unnamed in court documents and this story for the same reason.
Those two weeks of frustration resulted in four 911 calls regarding Ulrigg and Hammond from multiple businesses. There have been 33 calls concerning the couple in the past three years, charging papers say.
At another location Ulrigg and Hammond stacked garbage around their RV, attracting rodents, according to testimony by City-County Health Department employees. They also claim Ulrigg dumped sewage down a storm drain or into a neighboring yard.
Ulrigg and Hammond have lived on the street in their RV, moving to several locations around the city, since being evicted from a mobile home court in the fall of 2016.
The 911 reports, along with a lack of cooperation from Ulrigg and Hammond, spurred a lawsuit from the city in June 2017. It was the last course of action under city laws, all of which have no jail time penalties attached and small fines.
“Prosecution and fining of (Ulrigg and Hammond) alone will not abate the nuisance, as (they) have simply avoided appearing in Municipal Court on the charges and have not changed their behavior,” the lawsuit said.
The couple constituted a “public nuisance,” according to the lawsuit which also requested the judge to grant the city permission to tow and impound the RV if Ulrigg and Hammond continue to keep living in it on the street.
Ulrigg and Hammond never responded to the lawsuit, making a Feb. 13 court appearance their final stand of sorts. Despite not having an attorney, Ulrigg came with a legal defense against the city of Missoula, which ultimately delayed a decision against them.
The city is hoping the court will do what the city laws cannot.
Local laws lean away from “criminalizing behavior” or homelessness, as Missoula City Council members have put it. Instead, the attorneys have built their case against Ulrigg by demonstrating that he has repeatedly flouted the law, leaving it with no other choice than to take away his RV — the literal vehicle by which he continues to disobey city codes.
But his vehicle, so to speak, is also his home.
Ulrigg, at the Feb. 13 hearing, alleged the city changed its laws last year to prosecute him alone.
The changes to the city’s “parking for camping purposes” law, approved in December, removed references to living out of cars or other vehicles, focusing solely on RVs “given that is the problem at hand (based on citizen complaints),” Mike Haynes, Missoula's Development Services Director, said in an email.
“The vast majority of ‘urban campers’ understand and respect the law and comply when asked to move on,” Haynes wrote. “Law enforcement and legal action is a last resort to be used only when there is no voluntary compliance or regard for the impacts on affected property owners.”
In a December meeting with the Missoula City Council, Haynes said the changes were needed to address “very few individuals” who refused to comply with city laws.
So far Ulrigg is the only person the city is pulling into court over the matter.
At the same meeting, several council members discussed dealing with the issue in their wards, but were concerned about taking away someone’s means of living.
“A lot of these people are one step away from being homeless,” Ward 4 representative Jon Wilkins said. “I wish there was somewhere they could go … but they can’t be on the streets.”
Ward 5 Representative Julie Armstrong worried the city was forcing people into homelessness and maybe taking away their only option for a semi-stable life.
The city’s lawsuit is concerned not only with the RV.
Ulrigg and Hammond have a habit of piling up trash near their parking spot, attracting rodents and creating a fire hazard, according to health department testimony.
An employee saw Ulrigg draining the RV’s sewage into a bucket which he believes was dumped either into a storm drain or onto a nearby property, something Ulrigg and Hammond deny doing.
Homeowners near a Strand Avenue mobile home court, where Ulrigg and Hammond used to live and the first street location where they began living in the RV, told the health department they were afraid to clean up the trash themselves because of Ulrigg’s “previous threats and erratic and violent behavior.”
In an affidavit, Charmell Owens, the code enforcement officer for the city, said she issued Ulrigg a notice to clean up the junk and remove his RV, which she said he did not do.
At the Feb. 13 court hearing, Ulrigg asked that copies of complaints be turned over to him so that he could know who had reported him. Missoula Police Officer Ethan Smith, who was on the stand testifying at the time, told Ulrigg they were not identifying complainants.
“We’re a little concerned about retaliation,” Smith said.
Ulrigg has a history of contentions with the city, including an arrest in the early 2000s and other misdemeanor convictions. Vehicles he owns have been repeatedly impounded and towed. He blames the city for losing ownership of a set of mobile homes he and Hammond once possessed and were renting out as low-income housing to make a living.
Smith, a crime prevention officer who’s dealt with Ulrigg for years, said he’s tried to get the two into the city’s coordinated housing program and get them off the street, also recommending Ulrigg park the camper in his mother’s driveway to comply with the law.
“I’ve asked you all what I can do to help many times,” Smith said at the February hearing.
Ulrigg, who said he and Hammond recently had to apply for food stamps, don’t want to be on public assistance, and feel like they can get by just fine on their own, if only the city would leave them alone.
“The amount of crap I’m putting up with is biblical,” he said.
Ulrigg believes what he’s doing is legal, repeatedly presenting police officers and city staff a 2014 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles. At the Feb. 13 hearing, he made sure the judge knew about it as well.
The Desertrain case involved a Los Angeles municipal code that prohibited using a vehicle as “living quarters either overnight, day by day or otherwise,” and was selectively enforced against homeless people.
The 9th Circuit ruled that the code was unconstitutionally vague and applied unfairly by police.
At the Feb. 13 hearing, District Court Judge Karen Townsend said she would review the case and whether it applied to the city’s ordinances and its lawsuit against Ulrigg. City attorneys were told to submit a brief detailing why they don’t think the Desertrain ruling applies to how the city ordinance is written or enforced.
Ulrigg and Hammond recently moved to a section of Wyoming Street in the Old Sawmill District that doesn’t have any homes built on it yet, a choice Ulrigg said they made to lower the chance that someone would call the city and report them.
But even as he talked with a reporter outside his RV Thursday, a Missoula police officer drove past, pulled to a stop and rolled down his window.
“Are you getting this moved John?” he asked.
Ulrigg said they had already been stationary too long, and intended to move somewhere else that afternoon.
If the judge grants the city its request and they eventually take away his RV, there is no fallback plan. For a city which frequently cites homelessness and affordable housing among its top priorities, Ulrigg said Missoula seems bent on taking his only residence away from him.
“We have absolutely no other option but to be out on the street.”