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Urban camping prompts concern for members of Missoula community

Photo: NBC Montana Sky Team{p}{/p}
Photo: NBC Montana Sky Team

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Some community members are worried the issue of urban camping in Missoula is getting out of control.

A Missoula City Council committee held a meeting Wednesday on an emergency ordinance addressing overnight camping in public spaces.

Missoula is seeing a significant increase in urban camping. Issues like garbage, tents, needles, litter are concerning for locals.

The Council committee agreed to move forward with the proposed emergency ordinance in response to the noticeable surge in urban camping around the city.

“There is predicted to be a 70% increase in individuals experiencing homelessness as a result of the pandemic, and cuts to mental health case management funding at the state level and the pandemic forces, those predictions are coming true, and there are people who are in our community in great pain with very little options to turn to,” said Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess.

One resident stated during the meeting on Wednesday that while she was walking on a trail she came across a homeless man exposing himself at the Nature Center, right as an elementary school field trip was walking up the path to the Nature Center.

A local business owner stated during the meeting that his issue with camps is that people are not cleaning up after themselves and are leaving piles of litter once they move.

People are wondering what the solution is, one resident even saying all that has been talked about is the issue, not the solution. Hess disagreed with that statement.

“One criticism that we received that really isn’t founded is that we are not doing anything about urban camping. But I can tell you an example, the Parks Department recently dispatched 27 parks employees to clean up two dump truck loads of litter and debris, and the very next day had encampments back in the same location.”

The emergency ordinance says not all city lands are closed to overnight camping and declares an emergency to protect public health, safety and welfare.

“This year, as folks have been pretty well aware, we have been seeing more critical levels and a significant increase of people camping in parks and other places. We decided that maybe now is the time to respond, because at the time we are very limited on the number of enforcement tools we have,” said Ryan Sudbury with the city of Missoula.

The goal is to come into compliance with a Ninth Circuit Court ruling that says cities can’t enforce bans on public camping if they don’t have enough shelter beds available.

“We hope not to have to use this tool, but in the event that parks employees identify people sleeping in a park as being in conflict with some other programs or recreational programming or kids programs, or there's, you know, maintenance or infrastructure needs that need to be addressed, and they're unsuccessful in getting voluntary compliance and people can move out of those areas, then this would at least give us a tool to be able to say, ‘Listen, if you are going to continue to be recalcitrant here, we're going to have to issue a citation,” said Sudbury.

Missoula City Council is expected to take action on the emergency ordinance on June 5. We’ll let you know what happens.

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