The bottom half of Joseph Poole’s left boot curls skyward at a 45-degree angle, about where he lost a portion of his foot jumping trains while drunk on vodka.
Despite the old injury, Poole gets around pretty well in his worn pair of boots. On a weekday morning, the first taste of winter closing in, the 54-year-old packed his gear and left his encampment near the Kim Williams Trail east of Missoula.
But it was not because he wanted to.
“I’ve got other stuff I’m transporting out ’cause they left a sign where I’ve been camping,” said Poole, his military pack sitting low on his shoulders. “I wasn’t ready to move on just yet, but when I came back yesterday, there was a posted sign.”
That sign gave Poole and those camping in the immediate area three days to pack their belongings and vacate the encampments on city property.
The sweep is the latest by Missoula Parks and Recreation to move those camped on city land to another location.
For Poole, the sweep is a minor inconvenience. As he said, he “was born under a wandering star” and has been rambling most of his life.
“It’s something I’ve always done,” he said. “I’ve got half a foot and I’m a convicted felon. Not too many people are going to hire me. I’m what they consider chronically homeless.”
Regardless of where he ends up over the next few days, Poole is digging in to ride out the winter – something he says he is skilled and equipped to do.
Further down the trail, off in the brambles near the Clark Fork River, others have established illegal camps as well, stocking up for the season ahead.
Morgan Valliant, the conservation lands manager with Missoula Parks and Recreation, knows these back trails well, along with the fine line his department walks when showing compassion for the homeless while keeping the city’s parks and open spaces safe, clean and environmentally sound.
While Poole keeps a tidy camp – even rakes the soil around his tent to see who has entered when he is not around – others do not. It is not hard to find the area’s poorly kept encampments and observe the mounting problems they present to Valliant and his crew.
Valliant hikes into one encampment littered with garbage. The hillside serves as an open latrine and is dotted with toilet paper. A fire pit holds the charred remains of burned tree limbs and shrubs. A bike frame sits in disrepair and the main shelter is comprised of tarps stretched over felled logs.
The concentration of refuse and waste presents both an ecological and biological hazard, and it is one that has Valliant concerned. The camp is denuded of vegetation and the tenants have carved steps in the embankment leading down to the Clark Fork River.
Food and trash serve as attractants to bears and other wild animals. Valliant worries it will draw the animals closer to the city where they will likely be destroyed by game wardens.
“In recent years, cleaning up these sites has become a larger portion of our job, especially as we start to realize how much impact these illegal camps have,” Valliant said. “Over the last six years, we’ve seen an increase in illegal urban camping.”
Valliant noted the history of the Kim Williams Trail, how it once served as a railroad bed and how, even now, old tools from the trade still surface during cleanup efforts.
There also has been a long history of camping along the trail, and in other areas included in Missoula’s inventory of open space. With 4,000 acres to manage across the city, keeping up with the impacts of illegal camping is not easy. What is more, Valliant said, cleaning the sites often requires more than a trash bag.
While studying restoration in college, Valliant never thought he would become versed on handling blood-borne pathogens – human waste, hypodermic needles and other biological hazards. His department spends thousands of dollars each year cleaning and replanting illegal encampments, an act that also includes volunteers.
“We’re aware these people don’t have any other options,” Valliant said. “But this year has been especially tough. You had the Rainbows in town, and they’re just terrible campers. There’s been a long history of these things.”
Camping in Missoula’s urban parks and open spaces is tempting, given the amount of privacy offered throughout the city and along its fringes. But it remains illegal, Valliant noted. That does not stop those whose options are limited from seeking refuge in the woods, pitching makeshift shelters and striving for the sparsest of comforts.
A joint effort by city, county and state officials recently broke up one large encampment along the Clark Fork River near Reserve Street. On any given day, Missoula police officers may respond to a complaint of an illegal camp somewhere in town.
“There’s a lot of people camped in vehicles or in different parks and trail areas around town,” said Missoula Police Department Patrol Capt. Chris Odlin. “We have to try to deal with it as much as we can. A lot of it is complaint generated, but it’s also something we come across in the normal course of things.”
How often that occurs Odlin could not say, though he and Valliant both noted the various groups working to bring the homeless population indoors to the safety of a shelter.
That is easier said than done when those like Poole – and other homeless men encountered on the trail last week – are unwilling to check into the Poverello Center for care. They claim it is “infested with bedbugs,” that other tenants steal their gear and that it lacks storage for what few things they do possess.
The Poverello also has a strict no-alcohol policy, and does not admit anyone who has been drinking, although the men did not mention that prohibition.
“That Poverello ain’t no place to be,” Poole said. “If the new shelter has a place to store my gear, yeah, I may stay there. But I don’t want to listen to 50 or 60 son-of-a-guns screaming, snoring, farting and stinking through the night when I can be out here.”
Travis Mateer, the homeless outreach coordinator at the Poverello Center, said shelter staff and volunteers advocate for those living marginally in illegal encampments – asking city officials to give campers a few days to remove their belongings so they do not get displaced or thrown away.
“But we also realize there’s trash and health concerns that go with these illegal camps,” said Mateer. “We talk to people in an effort to build relationships so we can understand what those dynamics are that would cause people to live in these marginalized areas.”
The reasons are many, and they are not new. They remain addiction to drugs and alcohol, pets that are not accepted at the shelter, mental illness and, for some, an unquenchable thirst for independence.
“We all understand there are negative impacts to illegal encampments,” Mateer said. “It’s an understanding we all have – the trash and drug use – and we’re responsive to that. We do want to find community solutions to the challenges.”
As Poole packed up his belongings and headed out on a brisk fall morning, he was met on the trail by Russ Pickett.
The 48-year-old man appeared on a bike after hiking off Mount Sentinel, where he has lived with his wife for the past two years in a makeshift shack stocked with a cook stove, a generator and lanterns to provide light after sunset.
“We’ve got a shelter I built,” Pickett said of his living arrangement. “We lined it with logs – anything we could find; sleeping bags and flashing. We keep everything clean, and I clean up the trash along this trail when people leave and leave their trash.”
This far down the trail, Pickett said, the trash problem is worse. “Some people just don’t care,” he said, pointing this way and that, places he knows that are popular among homeless campers.
Pickett spends his days working to keep the area clean, and he hopes to be left alone in his shack on the mountain. It sits beyond city property on U.S. Forest Service land. He calls the location beautiful, but admits it is tough at times. The day before, he hauled up six gallons of water – enough for five days – and he is returning on this day for some gasoline for his generator.
“My wife has fibromyalgia real bad,” said Pickett. “I donate plasma for money. They pay for things like that.”
Valliant also knows where most of the camps are built, but not all. The city has yet to act on several of them. Getting to them takes time Valliant does not have, and money that is not available in his budget.
“There are definitely some folks up here doing their own thing,” Valliant said. “I’m always scraping pennies together for a better budget. People don’t realize all we do.”
Valliant recently received help from University of Montana professor Libby Metcalf and the students in her parks tourism and recreation management class.
Armed with maps and GPS units, the students combed this wooded area looking for abandoned campsites. When they found them – and they found seven at last count – they logged the location, along with any distinctive features such as fire rings and tent sites.
“Some of the camps are pretty elaborate,” said Metcalf. “They found an entire home made out of sticks with a couple different little buildings. They even had some entry signs. It looked like people had lived there for a sustained amount of time.”
Metcalf was surprised by the number of encampments her students located during their field study, and the amount of trash littering several of the sites. The discovery is not news to Valliant, who depends on the help of others when locating and cleaning the sites.
“Having Metcalf’s students go out with 15 people to walk transects and provide us with a map – and what we’ll see when we get there so we can plan accordingly – it helps us work with volunteer groups later.”
“I don’t know what the solution is,” Valliant added, speaking toward the bigger problem of homelessness. “We’ve got a lot of trash going into the river because of these camps. But people have to live somewhere.”