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Missoula announces plan to offer alternatives to illegal homeless camping

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Missoula Mayor John Engen looks toward county commissioners as they announce a strategy on Tuesday to end illegal urban camping and find safe places for homeless people to live.

A plan is in the works to end illegal urban camping and create more outdoor and indoor safe places for homeless people to camp and live in Missoula, city and county officials said Tuesday. 

Missoula mayor John Engen joined county commissioners Dave Strohmaier, Juanita Vero and Josh Slotnick to announce a new strategy for addressing what they call a "crisis."

All four said urban camps pose a health and safety threat to campers and the general public.

"The challenge of unhoused residents in the city of Missoula and Missoula County has reached a critical point," Engen said. "What we have been elected to do, the county commissioners and I working with staff, is to deploy an incident command team to help us treat this as a critical incident in the county and the city."

Adriane Beck, the director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, will begin the process of looking for land where sanctioned, legal camps can be set up, Engen said. They'll also explore ways to house more people in motels or other indoor sites.

"It ain't safe to camp on the West Broadway island," Engen said. "It is not safe to camp on the West Reserve island for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is floodwaters this time of year."

He acknowledged that he made a mistake a week ago when he allowed the city to expel people who were camping illegally on the West Broadway island without first having a place set up for those approximately 30 people to go.

Now, Engen said, the idea is to avoid making that mistake again by setting up safe alternatives and inviting people there rather than simply telling them to move along.

All four officials stressed that they will not direct police to forcefully remove homeless people from wherever they are living unless they're violent or are on private property.

Both governments will direct more resources, including funding, to the Poverello Center's homeless outreach team.

Engen said some of his constituents want him to "run every person who doesn't have a home out of town."

"I'm not going to do that," he said, noting it would be immoral and violate the U.S. Constitution.

However, the city will no longer allow unsanctioned camping in alleys, parks and other public areas, he said.

"We're going to need to find more alternatives and potentially scattered sites to do that," he said. "Here's the problem. Nobody's going to like it. But we believe that we have a responsibility, despite that, to solve for this problem."

Once the commissioners and Engen establish a list of potential sites, they'll work through a public process to establish those sites.

In a joint statement issued on Tuesday, the county and the city said the goal is to avoid the mistakes made by places like Seattle and Portland.

"We will no longer accept illegal camping in the urban wild," the statement read. "We will offer safe, secure, sanitary shelter with enough services to help people move forward. We will never allow ourselves to look like the major metro areas of the Northwest."

In their statement, the four officials explained that damage to infrastructure, the river and the environment at the Reserve Street homeless encampment will no longer be tolerated.

"We also recognize that life in the urban wild puts people at near continual risk and dramatically limits their potential," the statement said. "We will offer residents safe and secure shelter, with enough services to help them move forward, assist with transporting their belongings, and then formally close the area. We will enforce closure through warning and, if necessary, citations for trespassing."

The idea is to try creative solutions, even if they're imperfect, in order to avoid kicking the problem down the road to a future generation, Strohmaier said.

"Make no mistake about it friends, we are experiencing a public health, a humanitarian and environmental crisis on the streets and within the parks of our community," he said.

Slotnick noted that a sanctioned encampment called the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space resulted in 40 people finding safety and security this past winter.

"They don't have to spend all their mental energy worrying about the security of their person and their stuff," he said. "Then they can move themselves forward. They can get ideas. They can get jobs and they can seek services we have aplenty."

People living "off the grid" can't get access to those services, he said.

The total financial cost of the plan has yet to be determined, Slotnick said. He knows people will be critical of that, but he believes it will reduce costs in many ways if more people are housed. 

"Yes, we're gonna spend some money to do this," he said. "We are already spending money. We are already paying a cost. When those folks use the emergency room like a doctor and they use emergency services whenever they have a problem, that's also a cost."

Vero said both governments will look to address "upstream problems" such as early childhood education.

Engen also announced that the city has made an offer to purchase The Bridge Apartments, a 20-unit apartment building owned by Western Montana Mental Health Center that was recently listed for sale. The building houses people living with mental illness and people living off disability income and is rent-restricted for the time being.

"We're waiting to hear back," Engen said.

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