MISSOULA, Mont. — A Missoula woman's Freedom of Information Act request for emails about a temporary safe outdoor space reveal county officials have been discussing another location for a potential homeless camp.
In November 2020, county officials and community partners opened an outdoor shelter to help the homeless during the pandemic, but some residents have been concerned since the start.
Mackenzie Smith lives in the Miller Creek area near the temporary safe outdoor space. She tells us what officials said about the space made her skeptical.
“When we first heard about it, residents first heard about it kind of in November, there were a lot of questions about it, and then during the zoning meeting things just didn’t seem like we were getting the whole picture,” Smith said.
Last month, officials announced they wanted to make the camp permanent.
The move left Smith with even more questions, so she filed a FOIA request.
She asked for all emails between commissioners and parties involved with the TSOS, communication from the start of the project, planning, funding and operations.
She received roughly 955 different emails or documents but says the county left out information about the budget and communication with land owners.
We asked what was her reaction when she read the emails.
“A lot of information was about how do we hide things from the public, how do we keep the media from knowing what we're doing, and that's wrong -- these are our public servants, they are supposed to be working for us not trying to hide what they are doing, and that was really concerning for me,” said Smith.
NBC Montana’s coverage of homelessness in Missoula led Smith to hand the emails over to us.
In the emails, commissioners state an area near DeSmet Elementary is a problem area with campers and RVs. They say they've been looking to find another location for people camping there to relocate.
Starting in emails dated March 1, top county officials and the United Way talked about a possible location. The location is near the freeway, but officials write they are worried about access and services.
On March 26, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier sent an email urging the need for a location and mentioned using COVID-19 stimulus money to do it.
Then on March 27, Missoula County Chief Administrative Officer Chris Lounsbury responded and detailed a plan to involve United Way to create a planning group outside the public and media’s eyes.
We reached out to Strohmaier, the chair of the county commissioners, to see if another location for the homeless is in the works.
“We are absolutely looking for where we can find property within the greater Missoula area to be the receiving zone or the location where folks who are otherwise unsheltered or unhoused could be located,” said Strohmaier.
NBC Montana asked why it’s been such a secret.
“When we are dealing with outside partners, we do not need to have a quorum of the commission, which would be technically a public meeting, for every instance and every moment of dialogue that we have on a given issue,” said Strohmaier.
“Residents and the media should know what they are doing, and they can be proud of what commissioners are doing, but I didn't feel proud about what the commissioners are doing 00 I feel like they are trying to hide things form the taxpayers and the people who elected them,” said Smith.
“Not to say that anything is being hidden out of public view that won’t eventually come before the governing body for a decision, but the time is not always right for that to have that level of spotlight in the conversation,” said Strohmaier.
Those conversations are already happening. A homeless story on our Facebook page averages 150 to 180 comments. Our YouTube docuseries has more than 1,900 views.
That's one of the reasons people like Smith ask questions and we'll keep working to find the answers.