Violent conflicts between year-round residents of an illegal encampment below the Reserve Street Bridge and the site’s seasonal newcomers have increased, those working on the issue said Tuesday.
But the camps are fewer in number this year, and efforts by the Poverello Center to reach the interlopers are increasing as well.
Missoula County commissioners, joined by the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, the Poverello Center and the Montana Department of Transportation, revisited their efforts to eradicate illegal camping in the brush below the bridge.
While progress was reported since the task force met in February, a long-term solution to the problem remains elusive.
“In the past, we’ve had some pretty serious assaults, and we had a homicide down there,” said Sheriff T.J. McDermott. “For us, it’s a real challenge.”
In past years, the area below the bridge has seen homicide, rape and assault, among other violent crimes. The collection of garbage and human waste left by transient campers remains a concern as well.
While local elected officials are reluctant to say the problem can be fully eradicated, the state says anything less may be unacceptable.
“We’re interested in a long-term solution from a liability standpoint,” said Ed Toavs, district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation. “As the landowner, that’s property we’re entrusted with. When things happen down there, at the end of the day, we’re the ones responsible for it.”
While MDT owns much of the land, it lacks the enforcement authority to patrol the campsite. The area includes a tangled network of jurisdictions that range from city and county law enforcement to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
In past meetings on the issue, experts explored the possibility of removing the brush to make the site less secluded for campers. But that option concerned some wildlife officials, and MDT said erosion of the Clark Fork River's bank is already a problem.
Toavs said the state would like to reclaim the site, undoing the poor work that followed construction of Reserve Street.
“For whatever reason, when Reserve Street was built, the site was not properly reclaimed,” said Toavs. “We have an issue down there of erosion. We’re going to have our environmental folks come out there and start taking a look at this.”
The work could range from contouring the south bank of the Clark Fork River to restoring a more natural state. That could make the site more hospitable for law-abiding citizens looking to access the river.
“For someone who wants to go down there recreating, it’s a little intimidating,” said Toavs. “There are a lot of factors that don’t make it an inviting place for the average public, but do make it inviting for folks wanting a place to live. We’re interested in a long-term solution.”
Travis Mateer, the Poverello Center’s homeless outreach coordinator, visits the encampment on a regular basis. Last year, he recorded as many as 22 campsites. The number had fallen to a dozen by last Friday.
“A lot of the areas that were established have not been re-established,” he said. “There’s been improvement in the past year. Part of that is just having a presence. It’s not as under-the-radar as it used to be.”
However, Mateer said trash remains a problem. The state spent $15,000 removing several tons of garbage from the site in 2013. A cleanup was organized in April 2014, when crews removed another 4 tons of trash.
“That was nine months after the initial cleanup, so you can get a sense of the continued use right after it’s removed,” Mateer said. “We’ve also seen increased violence in just the last couple of weeks, from conflicts between the seasonal people and the year-round people. That’s where some of the concern is.”
After last year’s homicide, Mateer is no longer permitted to visit the site alone. McDermott offered Tuesday to have a deputy escort nonprofit employees from the Poverello and the Clark Fork Coalition when they visit the location.
However, McDermott said his office doesn’t have the staffing to patrol the site on a regular basis. Reserve deputies cannot be used for the work, unless accompanied by a sworn officer.
“Is there an overall solution, a one-size-fits-all solution? I don’t know what it would be,” said sheriff’s Capt. Rob Taylor. “It’s a difficult population to know. There are no addresses, and in some cases, the residents really don’t want us to know who they are or why they’re there.”
Missoula Police Chief Mike Brady suggested additional staffing at the sheriff’s department could be valuable in addressing problems at the encampment.
“The thing the city has that the county doesn’t right now, is we have resources available to dedicate full time to an issue,” Brady said. “If the sheriff staffing were to reach a level where they could dedicate a person that our people could talk to,” that would help.
“We’re more than willing to work with (Mateer) and the sheriff’s office, and whether it’s a county call or not, we’re going to respond and deal with it. We’ll work out the jurisdiction later.”