More than a dozen volunteers with boots and gloves dismantled several intricate shelters and hauled out 2 1/2 tons of trash from homeless encampments near the Reserve Street Bridge on Thursday.
At any given time during spring, summer and fall, up to two dozen homeless people camp illegally in the area beneath the Reserve Street Bridge, as well as the Buckhouse Bridge on the south end of town. The situation poses an environmental and public health hazard, so volunteers from the Big Sky Watershed Corps, Clark Fork Coalition, Montana Department of Transportation, Poverello Center, Missoula City-County Public Health Department and Western Montana Trail Riders Association join together every year to clean up the area, which is owned by MDT.
“I just looked at the big Dumpster we’ve been filling up, and it’s overflowing,” said Travis Ross, an environmental health specialist with the city-county Water Quality District. “We found cross-country skis, camp stoves, bikes, blankets, canned goods, toiletries, tools, just the regular trash one generates. Not to mention sanitary waste, which is a concern.”
Katie Racette, a Big Sky Watershed Corps member and the volunteer coordinator for the Clark Fork Coalition, said her organization works closely with the Poverello Center to visit the camps a month or two in advance and inform people before the cleanup begins.
“We let them know they can take whatever they need and move on,” she said. “We do it because all this trash out here is a human health and environmental health hazard. And we have a really strong volunteer force that’s really passionate about cleaning our rivers. We usually find some hardy volunteers to get out here and put some work in.”
Some of the camps near the Clark Fork River were built-up log shelters with carpets, office chairs and brooms. Ross said he’s also seen two-story structures in the area.
They all get torn down to discourage more people from trying to permanently settle the area.
“When we initially took a run at getting this under control, there were 26 separate camps, and that was in 2011,” Ross said. “And there were seven out here yesterday. At any given time there’s 15 to 20 people out here. And obviously no sanitation facilities or garbage facilities. It’s a huge problem. The idea is if we can get on top of it then it doesn’t attract more presence, so we’ll dismantle fire rings and take down structures. We came across two warm fire pits, so people waited until the last minute to leave.”
Volunteers with the Trail Riders Association used ATVs to haul big garbage bags and larger items to a trash bin. By the end of the day, it was filled to the brim with inner tubes, coolers, beer cans, and an assortment of odds and ends. If it hadn't been removed, the spring floods surely would have washed the junk and human waste downstream, polluting the Clark Fork River.
Ideally, Ross said, the area would be perfect for a public park because it’s so beautiful.
“But there’s law enforcement issues out here,” he said. “And maintenance issues. This is county jurisdiction. It’s on MDT’s radar to figure out ways to get the public out here, and we have ideas on that. As this area is developed and you get more people living out here, they’re gonna want to use this property. It’s great fishing from what I’ve heard. It’s just a matter of time. It’ll turn around.”
Ross said it’s important to note there has been a lot of improvement in the area.
“In the three years we’ve been doing this, the volumes have been going down,” he said. “The number of encampments are going down. Unfortunately, the amount of violence has not. There have been some incidents out here. But it has been a good partnership.”
In July of this year, a 28-year-old transient named Kevin Lino was sentenced to 40 years in prison for beating and fatally shooting another transient, Gilbert "Jack" Berry, beneath the bridge a year earlier.
Ross said there may be a misconception among the community that the people in the camps are only young.
“There’s a diverse population that lives out here,” he said. “You have a young crowd, there’s an older crowd, there’s a vet crowd. You see evidence of children having lived out here as well. The public health side is a huge concern for us, but there’s a real human element here as well. It works very well to team up with the Pov and the coalition to address this.”
Travis Mateer, the homeless outreach coordinator for the Poverello Center, said he comes out to the area once a week to check on a client.
“I look forward to coming out here because I want to have a reason to have a presence,” he said. “We walk around with socks and things and say, ‘Hey, we’re here to give you resources, but I want to let you know that it’s illegal to camp out here.’ And we make sure that they know ahead of time that we’re doing this so people have a chance to remove stuff.”
Mateer said that this year there was a giant “landfill” area where residents had piled their trash.
“That was actually a very positive thing,” he said. “It looks disgusting, but what happened was we attempted to do a cleanup in April but the spring runoff got too high too early so we had to abandon the efforts. And that was actually people living out here helping us out by consolidating trash in one spot to make it easier for us to remove it. So we have a little bit of buy-in from folks out here. Really, I am certainly on board with finding ways to keep this area from being inhabited year-round. Whether that’s finding different uses for this area."
One idea that has been floated about is creating a mountain bike park.
"If you increase recreational use, then you decrease some of the bad stuff," Mateer said. "Jacobs Island is a good example of that. There was an effort to get more people using that to keep people from trashing it.”
Mateer said there is a low level of violence among the homeless population in town.
“It’s just hard to hold people accountable when you don’t have folks that want to report it or witnesses that can be credible or take the stand if it goes to a trial," he said. "We have folks that can stab people, and it’s still difficult to hold them accountable. Like, you can literally almost kill someone because, you know, the victim may have forgotten and in six months they’re out. And it’s like, what do you do with some of these folks? It’s been very eye-opening to me.”