While the controversial topic of urban camping again packed Bozeman’s city commission chambers last week, it also attracted a few eyeballs from a city further west.
That’s because Missoula’s leaders, struggling with their own complex homelessness issues, are likely to view Bozeman’s tenuous approval of an urban camping ordinance as a green light to move forward with restricting the same activity.
What’s more, leaders from both municipalities appear to be sharing tactics as they clamp down on urban camping, if not outright learning from each other’s mistakes.
Bozeman’s ordinance would create a legal framework for camping on city streets, including a 30-day limit on any one street, restricting camping near residences, businesses, schools, parks and daycares, and creating sanitary and personal property requirements.
Violators would face up to three warnings, after which the city could issue $25 civil fines, similar to parking tickets. The ordinance also gives the city power to clear out the camps and tow vehicles, but it’s not exactly clear how that would work.
While the Bozeman commission voted 4-0 in favor of the rules, much of the meeting’s focus was on how to make the whole package more palatable, rather than punishing, to urban campers.
To that effect, Commissioner Christopher Coburn introduced four amendments designed to soften the ordinance, including extending the camping day limit from the original five days, reducing fines, removing noise restrictions on generators, and changing what he called “stigmatizing” language in the law, including the phrase “involuntary homeless.”
Bozeman City Manager Jeff Mihelich during the meeting described the ordinance as “far less punitive” compared to what the city can currently do to ticket urban campers.
“Right now, we can actually write criminal citations for people that are obstructing the right-of-way or accumulating trash in the right-of-way,” Mihelich said, adding, “Those penalties can be $500 to $1,000, and it’s a criminal penalty.”
Bozeman’s urban camping ordinance will go back to various city departments for further review before a second reading in front of the commission in about three weeks.
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…
Ryan Sudbury, who serves as Missoula’s interim city attorney, told Montana Free Press that he’s been working alongside Bozeman city staff for months, if not years, as both municipalities discussed the ordinance that Mihelich presented earlier this month.
“Our draft ordinance that hopefully should be submitted to [the] council in the next couple weeks looks very similar to Bozeman’s ordinance,” Sudbury said, explaining that Missoula’s rules wouldn’t be an exact copy.
“My understanding is that our homeless issues are a bit flipped between here and Bozeman,” Sudbury added, noting that Missoula’s urban encampments are made up of mostly tent campers, while Bozeman’s population seems to favor RVs and tow-behind campers.
According to city statistics, Missoula currently has more than 700 homeless individuals, while Bozeman’s homeless population is about a third of that, numbering about 250. The precise count of individuals camping in both cities varies due to shelter availability, but numbers are generally in the hundreds.
OFFICIALS; CITY-SPONSORED CAMPING DOESN’T WORK
Besides moving forward with a shared vision on how to regulate two very different situations, leaders from both Missoula and Bozeman said they’ve also learned what definitely doesn’t work for those living on the streets.
For Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess, the city’s expensive attempt to create an authorized campsite, or ACS, simply did not work the way the city envisioned.
Hess said he made the decision to close Missoula’s ACS in October of 2022 after numerous safety complaints and because it cost the city more than $319,000 to operate from when it was opened in the previous January. That figure doesn’t include costs paid by the county.
“The authorized campsite was, I would say, a noble experiment,” Hess told MTFP. “It was an attempt to create a safe, sanctioned campsite where folks living without shelter could camp with access to sanitation and some real basic services.”
Missoula’s ACS was located near the Clark Fork River and adjacent to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The vacant lot offered 40 tent campsites with space for up to four campers per site. However, advocates for the homeless told MTFP that services and staff were sorely lacking, with only a few portable toilets and a small security team to help with safety concerns among the campers.
Jim Hicks is a pastor and the executive director of Missoula’s Hope Rescue Mission, a nonprofit religious organization that offers temporary housing for the homeless, help with addiction, and crisis counseling, among other services.
Hicks told MTFP that the city asked his organization to run the ACS, but he flatly refused three times because he thought it was such a bad idea.
“You cannot have a group of unhoused, mental health, drug people gather without accountability and responsibility,” Hicks said. “It will turn into a Wild West show, and that’s exactly what happened.”
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.
Hicks added that he believes the ACS was well-intentioned but to safely function needed more funding and staff resources than the city was ready to provide.
“If you gather people, you’ve got to have service providers 24/7 to help them, or else they will form their own little government, and it won’t be good,” Hicks said.
Bozeman’s Mihelich said he’s ruled out replicating the Missoula ACS experiment, citing challenges in finding a suitable property and because the police simply can’t force homeless people to use a city campsite, regardless of how many resources it offers.
Mihelich addressed a number of speakers at last week’s city commission meeting who asked for a publicly funded campsite similar to the ACS in Missoula.
“That method, and that approach, and that potential solution has been tried all across the country, including in cities in Montana,” Mihelich told the packed commission meeting. “Those solutions candidly just don’t work.”
IS A ‘HOMELESS EMERGENCY’ RIGHT FOR BOZEMAN
In Missoula, there’s another approach to urban camping: declaring a local emergency under the state code.
Missoula declared such an emergency in June. This allowed Mayor Hess’ administration to swiftly enact an emergency ordinance to regulate the city’s urban camps that sprung up after the Johnson Street Warming Center closed for the summer.
The plan, though deemed “dehumanizing” by some, involved clearing homeless encampments from city parks and trails and conducting extensive clean-up operations to remove tons of trash and address sanitation concerns.
Additionally, the emergency declaration enabled the city to promptly take steps to reopen the Johnson Street Warming Center, with funding from a combination of local and federal sources, including the remainder of the city’s pandemic relief funding.
Notably, Mayor Hess chose not to impose nearly half a million dollars in emergency taxes allowed by the declaration, telling MTFP it was “an open question” as the city worked through the state of emergency this summer.
However, Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham told those gathered at the recent meeting that he believes emergency taxes to alleviate the issues of urban camping are worth considering in Bozeman.
Cunningham said that an emergency declaration could allow the city to raise two mills, or $500,000 in taxes, which could be used to help urban campers afford the deposit on a rental unit, or perhaps to incentivize private campgrounds for the homeless, or even pay to store the various belongings of those camped in the city while they complete transitional housing programs.
“I’m looking for solutions,” Cunningham said, adding, “The problem is housing.”
Bozeman’s current mayor, Cyndy Andrus, isn’t convinced there’s enough evidence to declare a city-wide emergency that would further empty the pockets of Bozemanites.
Andrus, who is running for re-election this year, said the city is already allowed to levy additional funds via regular property taxes, and she’s concerned that an emergency tax increase could create confusion about what the commission is actually trying to accomplish and how much money it needs to do the job.
“I’m not sure that’s the right route, to be honest with you,” Andrus told MTFP. “If it’s about money, there’s other ways to get that money, and we need time to figure out what we’re going to do with it and how we’re going to spend it.”
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