BOZEMAN — For Bozeman police officer Scott Vongehr, a trip to the city’s urban encampments is like a scavenger hunt for items you’d normally see at a garage sale or in your neighbor’s messy backyard.

Whether it’s a stack of snow tires waiting for winter, a broken-down riding lawn mower that somebody promises to fix or a vehicle transmission that needs wrenching, Vongehr said these items show that Bozeman’s urban campers are here to stay, even as the city struggles to put limits on them.

Vongehr is the city’s community resource officer, and, he said, it can be a demanding job. Since stepping into the role about a year ago, up to 90% of his time has been spent dealing with urban camping. He said that includes convincing people who live in their vehicles that it’s important to clean up all the junk that seems to collect around them.

Officer Vongehr said he wishes he could pull a dump trailer around to Bozeman’s urban camps and help residents dispose of all the garbage that seems to pile up. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

“There are times I wish I had a half-ton truck and a dump trailer,” Vongehr told Montana Free Press during his rounds on a recent afternoon. 

Vongehr said it’s a misconception that the city’s growing population of residents sleeping in RVs, cars and campers is dramatically driving up crime in the area. He said most of those people hold down jobs and just want a cheap place to call home while they save up to get off the streets.

The 45-year-old veteran of the department has been a patrol officer and a detective and has served on the local drug task force. He said his new role is quite different. He doesn’t wear a traditional uniform or drive a black-and-white police cruiser. Instead, he partners with local homeless advocates and makes his rounds on a weekly basis, checking on people camped out on the street and reminding them of what it means to be a good neighbor.

“I’m on pretty much a first-name basis with the majority of them,” Vongehr said.

He said he can ticket people for drinking alcohol in public or for blocking the streets, but what he can’t do is force them to leave.

That’s because a landmark 2018 federal court case largely enshrined the rights of homeless people to camp on Bozeman’s city streets. The case, known as Martin V. Boise, was decided by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling determined that cities in a huge swath of the West can’t criminalize homelessness if local shelters lack adequate bed space that people could immediately go to when asked by law enforcement.

Officer Vongher talks with 31-year-old Brittany Belcourt, who lives with her husband in the couple’s RV parked on Equestrian Lane in Bozeman. Belcourt works in food delivery and said her husband is a construction foreman. In her free time, she grows cherry tomatoes, lettuce and peppers in a tiny garden she tends in front of the RV. “It is surprisingly difficult to pick up your house and move it around a bunch,” Belcourt said. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

Police and local housing advocates peg the city’s growing number of homeless residents at about 250. 

It also means that Bozeman’s shelters would need dozens more beds if officials wanted to start forcing homeless people off the streets. Those shelter beds would also need to be accessible 24/7, which they currently aren’t. 

For Bozeman City Manager Jeff Mihelich, the solution isn’t more shelter beds so he can start forcing urban campers out of their improvised homes; it’s about creating a set of rules to keep their growing numbers in check. 

Officer Vongher said that a variety of people, including contractors and college student, appear to be dumping furniture and other unwanted household items at Bozeman’s urban camps, making the people who live there deal with even more trash than they generate. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

That’s where Bozeman’s new urban camping ordinance comes into play, Mihelich said. The proposed rules would create a legal framework for camping on streets in Bozeman, including a five-day limit a person can stay on any one street, restricting camping near residences, businesses, schools, parks and daycares, and creating sanitary and personal property requirements. Violations would be met with vehicle towing or camp removal and a $100 civil fine. 

Mihelich said he expects the Bozeman City Commission to pass the ordinance at its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 19.

“We’re doing things within this new proposed ordinance to protect everybody using the right of way,” Mihelich told MTFP. “Whether someone is driving, whether someone is walking, whether someone is parked or whether someone is sleeping out there.”

He said while the ordinance won’t solve the problem of homelessness, it’s better than having no laws at all. Other ideas, Mihelich said, like creating an enclosed public camping space, haven’t worked in communities like Seattle and Missoula and would waste taxpayer money in Bozeman.

 “We’re doing things within this new proposed ordinance to protect everybody using the right of way,” Mihelich told MTFP. “Whether someone is driving, whether someone is walking, whether someone is parked or whether someone is sleeping out there.”

Bozeman City Manager Jeff Mihelich

Mihelich said the city also plans to hire three new employees to enforce the new ordinance. That includes a neighborhood services and compliance manager and two health and safety compliance officers to lessen the load on the police department and help clean up the camps.

Asked to define ideal candidates for those positions, Mihelich described them as “problem solvers” who care about other people.

“They’re going to understand in an expert way all the resources that are available to people who are in need, and they’re also going to be extremely understanding and thoughtful about how we’re going to enforce our codes in a humane way,” Mihelich said.

All told, the cost for the new positions will be upwards of $230,000 per year in salaries and benefits. The city already paid $51,000 to clean up the street camps this spring, a figure that doesn’t include Officer Vongehr’s salary or the time other officers have spent responding to complaints. 

For Heather Grenier, the expense is just a drop in the bucket in the fight against homelessness in the Gallatin Valley.

“I’m one of the originals,” said 67-year-old Chuck, who asked that his last name not be published. Chuck lives in an aluminum-sided camper near Rawhide Ridge Road with his dog and cat. Chuck said he’s been in the Bozeman area for the past seven years. His camper is fully mobile, he said, and he can be packed up and moved in about 20 minutes. “Yes, you can judge us to a certain point, but some of us are responsible and trying to make a neighborhood,” Chuck said. Credit: Matt Standal / MTFP

Grenier is the CEO of the Human Resource Development Council, a nonprofit that helps homeless people in southwest Montana. She says HRDC plans to spend upwards of $15 million over the next 12 to 18 months to build a new shelter called Homeward Point that will be located on Wheat Drive just off North 7th Avenue in Bozeman.

Grenier expects yearly operating costs to hover around $2 million for the facility, which will be staffed 24 hours a day. The shelter will offer 130 beds and six family suites for the area’s homeless population, and include resources for health care, addiction treatment and housing assistance.

In contrast, HRDC’s current shelter, the Bozeman Warming Center, has limited hours and offers space for only about 100 people overnight. 

While the new shelter promises to fix some of those issues, Grenier said there still won’t be enough space for the area’s homeless population because HRDC will close the Warming Center when it opens Homeward Point. That means police won’t be able to force urban campers to leave the city anytime soon, she said, and those who don’t want to accept that reality should donate to services that help those transitioning from homelessness.

“The sentiment toward homelessness has changed drastically in the last three years,” Grenier told MTFP, “from a space of empathy and wanting to take care of our community, to one of anger and ‘I didn’t move here to look at this.’”

Asked if her organization supports the city’s urban camping ordinance, Grenier said she’d prefer to see the five-day camping limit extended to two weeks and the $100 fine become a discretionary punishment for particularly bad offenders. 

“The sentiment toward homelessness has changed drastically in the last three years, from a space of empathy and wanting to take care of our community, to one of anger and ‘I didn’t move here to look at this.’”

Heather Grenier, CEO, Human Resource Development Council

For Officer Vongehr, the whole situation is a bit like kicking a can down the road.

He said the people who wind up in Bozeman’s urban camps are those who previously relied on low-income housing or mobile home parks before those options began to disappear in Bozeman as housing prices soared.

What’s more, Vongehr said the need for construction and service workers continues to bring job seekers to the area who might not be aware of Bozeman’s escalating rental costs.

“People are still coming here, and they need a place to live,” Vongehr said.

This story was updated Sept. 12, 2023, to clarify the comments of Heather Grenier regarding donations.

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Matt Standal is a Montana-based multimedia journalist with a background in filmmaking and outdoor education. While he's produced stories for local news broadcasters in Minnesota and Idaho, Matt's favorite job is leading backcountry ski tours in Yellowstone National Park. He's also a former PADI scuba instructor, emergency medical technician and devoted book nerd. You can find Matt teaching avalanche safety classes when he's not working with film crews or digging into stories.