The Missoula County Commissioners declared a state of emergency Thursday, giving the county authority to remove trash that has accumulated from people living underneath the Reserve Street Bridge.
County Commissioners Juanita Vero and Dave Strohmaier, along with Missoula County Public Works crews cleaned up the site Friday.
The Montana Department of Transportation owns the land beneath the bridge, which previously prevented the county from accessing the property. The emergency declaration allows local authorities to take care of the immediate environmental, health and safety concerns in the area while river levels remain relatively steady, according to the press release.
The emergency declaration does not authorize the removal of people or personal belongings from the property. Four individuals still live underneath the bridge, the press release stated. Members of the cleanup effort will inform those living there about their alternative, legal camping options, including the Authorized Camping Site and the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space.
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A U.S. 9th Circuit Court decision outlawing the criminalization of homelessness prevents law enforcement from removing people and their belongings from public property if there aren’t sufficient shelter options. The Montana Department of Transportation currently awaits the outcome of a lawsuit in Missoula County District Court seeking a court order for law enforcement to enforce trespassing and prohibit encampments on the property.
According to the press release, “…spring runoff concerns prompted the need for an emergency declaration to allow the County to assist with removing trash from the site before water levels increase on the Clark Fork River.”
Organizations that work with the unhoused population provided basic training for county staff ahead of the cleanup to educate crews about working with people experiencing homelessness.
The commissioners will vote to approve the state of emergency declaration at their administrative meeting Tuesday, and the declaration will apply retroactively, according to a press release from the county Friday morning.