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Beneath Reserve Street, Missoula's busiest roadway, another unseen community lives along the Clark Fork River. 

And like any community, garbage follows.

Reserve Street drivers could see the mounting trash bags along the guardrail Tuesday as a few dozen volunteers hit the Clark Fork floodplain below the Reserve Street bridge, where several transient camps are established during the summer months, to haul out several tons of rubbish generated by the people who live there.

"Basically everything we're cleaning up is underwater in the spring," said Katie Racette of the Clark Fork Coalition. "We're just hoping to get ahead of it a little bit and prevent all that trash from going downstream."

The effort is a collaboration between the Clark Fork Coalition and the Missoula Valley Water Quality District, which both see the need for a riverside cleanup as a conservation project, and the Poverello Center's Homeless Outreach Team, which has the on-the-ground people to connect with those who live near the river.

"We're used to having trash cans and trash collection, and unfortunately not all folks have that," said Hannah Higgins, with the Homeless Outreach Team. 

For the most part, the items collected didn't look too different from what's found in the city's dumpsters: dirty socks, food containers, broken glass, maybe a busted canopy setup. 

It all adds up. Todd Seib, environmental health specialist with the Water Quality District, said they removed 20 tons of waste from the floodplain area last year. 

"It's kind of hidden from Missoula," Seib said. "I don't feel like a lot of people know this is down here. Eventually this would all end up in the garbage patch in the ocean."

Members of the Western Montana Trail Riders ATV Club were also on hand Tuesday, putting some ATVs to work in hauling garbage from the floodplain to the growing trash bag pile near the Reserve Street bridge. 

Seib said the cleanup effort has brought more people together than he expected, but it just reminds him of Missoula's community stance on keeping rivers clean. 

"It's one of the reasons I love Missoula," he said. "This is everyone's community, it's all our water, it's a shared resource."

Higgins said the cleanup also gives her team another chance at outreach to the community below the river. The snow capping the mountains around the Missoula area Tuesday was a reminder that winter is coming, and this is a good time to point out to the homeless that they have a place to go. 

Missoula is home to 293 homeless individuals, a community-wide survey found in January. That's 23 percent of the estimated total homeless population statewide.

There are a multitude of reasons why people find themselves without a home, from job losses to illness to low wages to family crises — or combinations of some or all those things.

Higgins said HOT plans to move forward with riverside cleanups around town, including microtrash projects and additional cleanup events throughout the year.

"I'm of the personal belief that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met," she said. "There's not enough affordable housing, there are several factors of why people are living out here. Anything you can do to help is positive."

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