The structure sits abandoned in the mud, its frame built of fallen logs, its roof partially thatched with twigs and a rotting tarp. Razors, bottles and plastic bags with human waste sit within reach of the rising Clark Fork River.
Over the past few weeks, members of the Clark Fork Coalition and the Poverello Center have scouted this popular homeless encampment below Missoula’s Reserve Street Bridge ahead of a cleanup planned for Saturday.
Nearly a dozen homeless camps lie scattered across the 80-acre site abutting the river. Most of the camps sit abandoned, and with the spring runoff drawing near, removing the garbage has become a pressing race against Mother Nature.
“For us, the biggest concern is the impacts to both the environment and human health,” said Kascie Herron. “This situation is not healthy to humans and there are actual impacts to downstream water quality.”
Herron, the Big Sky Watershed Corps member with the Clark Fork Coalition, moves down a tangled path where several more camps come into view, including one that looks like a hut built in Africa.
Across the slough, an active and poorly maintained camp sits under the Reserve Street Bridge, where the sound of traffic rumbles above. Another camp sits nearby, revealed only by its blue tarp covering a cave dug into an earthen berm.
Many of the camps were established before winter with the goal of permanence. They include stoves cut from steel trash cans, corrugated pipe, cooking utensils, file cabinets and shopping carts from nearby Walmart.
Shipping pallets await the campfire and spring weeds rise through the spokes of bicycle wheels. Beer cans, bottles and plastic foam containers clutter the woods. Animals have torn into the garbage bags left behind, and mismatched shoes aren’t hard to find.
“A couple spots have turned into unofficial landfills,” Herron said. “It’s in the floodplain, and once the water starts to rise, it’s going to wash away these mostly abandoned camps.”
The Clark Fork Coalition is walking a fine line, wanting to protect the river from contamination while remaining sensitive to the needs of the homeless who use the area.
To achieve their goal, the coalition has partnered with the Poverello Center to devise a cleanup plan. The two organizations have scouted the area, talking with campers and posting signs warning that items left behind will be removed come Saturday.
“We’re going to be bringing our service learning students who have worked with our population for some time now,” said Cassie Sheets, the volunteer coordinator with the Poverello Center. “We’ll have a systematic process to making sure they know where their items are going to be so, so losing them doesn’t become a huge barrier.”
While volunteers work to remove the garbage, members of the Poverello will collect and tag any items deemed of value, including sleeping bags and tents that haven’t succumbed to the winter elements.
Bicycles left unclaimed – and there are many – will go to Free Cycles in Missoula, an organization that works for sustainable transportation. Items not of value will be moved to collection sites Saturday and discarded.
Yet as the cleanup takes place and the garbage is removed, the issue of homelessness will linger. Sheets said those who use the site have different reasons for doing so, from addiction issues to post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes it uncomfortable for some to live in a communal environment such as the Poverello’s downtown shelter.
“It may be a lifestyle choice, or a married couple who can’t live together in our shelter,” said Sheets. “You want to let them know we’re available if they do need our services. The best we can do is make this community effort.”
The encampment sits in the Reserve Street right-of-way, and signs posted by the Montana Department of Transportation warn campers that trespassing is illegal. The signs are largely ignored, but enforcement has been minimal despite recent crimes.
Last year, two runaway girls, ages 13 and 14, were raped under the Reserve Street Bridge by a transient. The Missoula City-County Health Department also handles regular complaints from landowners over the illegal camps and the accumulation of trash.
Travis Ross, with the department’s Water Quality District, said complaints over trash arrive each spring during runoff. It’s been a problem up and down the Clark Fork River corridor in Missoula, but this location, Ross said, has been particularly hard to address.
“It’s a difficult site to control,” said Ross. “You have stream access laws, and such a large complicated site to control access to. It’s not a viable solution to restrict access. Given the current situation, the best we feel we can do is to remove the garbage before the high water comes through.”
Last spring around this time, the Montana Department of Transportation spent $18,000 cleaning up the Reserve Street camp site. It was the first coordinated cleanup of the popular homeless camp in years, Ross said.
But the garbage has returned, though on a lesser scale. Ross and others hope that with the Poverello working to connect with those who camp in the area, and with volunteers cleaning up trash each spring, they may stay abreast of the impacts, if not reduce them over time.
“We have existing partnerships willing and eager to do some good,” Ross said. “The Poverello has been great going out with us and trying to get people connected into services. That’s where some good progress can be made.”