“Sweeps” of area parks in Missoula, like this one at Downtown Lions Park in late June, have become more common as complaints about “urban campers” in the city have increased. Credit: Tully Sanem

The first thing Tully Sanem mentions is the breeze. It’s July, and the heat and sunshine have been unrelenting for the past few days. “I don’t have any place to go and sit in air conditioning,” he said. 

Sanem has lived in Missoula on and off since 2000. Originally from Iowa, his housing has varied during that time. At one point he owned a modest home, but he’s been living out of his car for the last three years. He works odd jobs as a carpenter and builder when he can, but he hasn’t been able to save enough to afford the rising rents in Missoula. 

“The idea that if you had a job then you wouldn’t be homeless very long is completely false,” he said. 

Sanem currently parks his truck behind a downtown hotel, but he has had to move quite a bit as a response to the increasing number of “sweeps,” efforts by the city to remove tents and vehicles belonging to people experiencing homelessness from public parks and other spaces. 

“It’s like an exodus. If I can find a place to stay, then I can work more,” he said. “But when you live like that, being moved all the time, it’s difficult to contribute to society. You can’t hold a job if every two weeks you have to move.” 

Missoula has experienced a surge in the cost of living since the COVID-19 pandemic, making it difficult for people to afford housing. As a result, the number of people experiencing homelessness has swelled, prompting the city to spend one-time federal money on several attempted solutions. In 2022, it opened an emergency Authorized Camp Site on Reserve Street that it then closed, citing budget limitations and difficulty managing the health and safety of the space, in favor of a winter shelter on Johnson Street. The shelter provided an additional 150 beds, but it was closed for the season in March. 

Upon the closure, most people who relied on it for shelter were left without a place to go. The year-round Poverello Center is almost always filled to capacity overnight. Dozens of people — “urban campers,” they’ve been called — started sleeping in parks, on trails or under bridges, and city officials started fielding an unprecedented number of complaints. 

Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess declared a state of emergency on June 9. Along with the declaration, the City Council approved a 90-day ordinance that said city-owned parks and trails — but not all city-owned land — would be closed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., and marshaled funding towards emergency response efforts.  

Much of that funding has been used to remove camps and tell people to go elsewhere. 

Since the first week of June, the city has spent more than $32,800 removing encampments and towing vehicles, according to a tally of its weekly urban camping reports. During that time, the city has received at least 163 formal complaints about urban camping. 

 “But when you live like that, being moved all the time, it’s difficult to contribute to society. You can’t hold a job if every two weeks you have to move.”

Tully Sanem

People experiencing homelessness, advocates and many service providers say the sweeps cause distress and harm to an already-vulnerable community and make it difficult to provide basic needs such as clean drinking water and medical care. Meanwhile, policymakers and city officials face competing pressures from people who cite safety and health concerns near outdoor campsites such as human waste, litter and drug paraphernalia. 

The mayoral emergency declaration and temporary ordinance also led to a cascade of questions around the long-term solutions to address the crisis facing unhoused individuals in Missoula, questions that remained unanswered even after an hours-long City Council meeting on July 10. 

During that meeting, council members considered removing language from existing city codes that prohibits camping in “any public park, trail, conservation land, public parking lot, boulevard, or any public rights of way including beneath or upon any public bridges or along any river, stream or creek,” which, according to city officials, is necessary to comply with a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Issued five years ago, the Martin v. Boise opinion concluded that a city cannot ban camping on all publicly owned land unless it can provide adequate shelter or other alternatives. 

The emergency ordinance passed by the council in June in conjunction with the mayor’s emergency declaration made it so that not all city land is closed to overnight camping or sleeping, only public parks, trails and conservation land between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. However, it did not delineate where people were permitted to sleep without fear of removal. 

On July 10, the City Council debated whether to make the ordinance permanent. 

Enforcement of the restrictions on overnight camping has significantly increased in recent months as the Poverello Center and the Temporary Outdoor Sleeping Center have been unable to meet the demand for housing and more people have been forced to live outdoors. 

“Each site is treated individually based on residents’ observations and complaints about public health and safety concerns other than sleeping or camping,” according to a statement from Donna Gaukler, director of Missoula Parks and Recreation, the agency largely responsible for maintaining city-owned land and charged with leading many of the sweeps.  

Sanem described the city’s homeless population as “burned out” by the repeated orders to move, a sentiment shared by Clayon Shea, who is also homeless.

“I hear a lot of talk about the disheveled nature of these camps. I don’t know how exactly you expect people to combat that with such short stay periods,” Shea said during the recent City Council meeting. “When you get somewhere, you’ve just been kicked out of somewhere, and you’re moving everything.” 

Service providers say that these sweeps have made it more difficult to provide essential health care and have led to broken trust between workers and the people they are trying to serve. 

While the City Council’s agenda item on July 10 focused on the ordinance, the discussion was more far-reaching. Many council members, advocates and community members said that homelessness in the city necessitates a more extensive discussion and that they were reluctant to make permanent a law that raised questions without solutions. 

Chief among those concerns was where people could go to sleep overnight on city land without risk of penalty. According to the ordinance, not all public land is off limits, but it does not specify where a person can sleep. 

“This ordinance feels like a reactionary, disconnected response,” said Kristen Jordan, the councilwoman representing ward 6. Referring to a petition from 100 people experiencing homelessness, Jordan said, “these are our constituents, and they deserve a seat at the decision-making table.” 

Ward 4 Council Member Mike Nugent noted the inconsistency of declaring a state of emergency but only offering solutions that can’t be enacted for several months, such as the planned reopening of the Johnson Street Shelter later this year. 

While Sanem said most of the people he knows — including himself — who have been forced to relocate have been given ample notice, he emphasized that notice doesn’t do much good when people have nowhere to go. Going to bed each night, knowing you might have to repack and unpack all over again the next morning, “just doesn’t work,” he said. 

“When people have the opportunity to improve their life or add pizzazz to their spot, even if they are homeless, they take pride in that. People work hard to set this stuff up,” Sanem said. “With all of these sweeps happening so fast, people don’t have hope to find a new place. I guess you could call it dehumanizing.” 

The City Council will reconsider the ordinance at a meeting on August 28, after what some council members hope will be fruitful conversations and planning around solutions in the coming weeks. But Councilmember Gwen Jones representing ward 3 called on the broader community to step up, too. 

“I’m hearing that people want more holistic solutions. The crisis levy didn’t pass, and that sent a pretty strong message,” said Jones, referring to the ballot measure that failed last year to fund behavioral health professionals after one-time federal funding had been exhausted. “We need to figure out how to get from point A to point B, but we’ve got some time this summer.” 

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Carly Graf is a freelance reporter based in Missoula. Before making her home in Western Montana, Carly reported from Chicago and the Bay Area as well as from Argentina and Palestine. When not writing, you can find her running on local trails or searching for a hazy IPA in town.