Demystifying Missoula’s Reserve Street Homeless Camp Clean-Up

by William Skink

David Neu, a confused Missoulian, was mystified enough with the recent story of the homeless camp cleanup to write a letter to the editor. Apparently the fact that trash removed is measured in tons didn’t clue David in as to why this cleanup is necessary on an annual basis (really, at least two are probably needed with the current uptick in use).

Here is David describing his confusion:

“The photos of the woman crying along the Clark Fork River and the volunteers cleaning up the home she had been forced to vacate in a recent Missoulian was at once heartbreaking and mystifying.

There seems to be confusion as to what it signifies, and Travis Ross, an “environmental health specialist” for the city and county did nothing to clear it up when he reportedly spoke of the area’s “high potential to be a public park or a disk golf course.” The woman’s companion only asks for a “dumpster or an outhouse.” But as Ross sees it — and who knows maybe his employers — this would only come about if its higher use potential could be achieved, something hampered by the fact that Missoulians are afraid to visit this neighborhood of homeless people.

I don’t think Missoulians are so squeamish — especially those renters making barely sustainable wages — $28,765 annually as reported the Missoulian recently, who make up slightly over half of the city’s population, and by extension are only one paycheck away of joining their brothers and sisters along the river. Or could it be that this “beautiful riparian area with great wildlife habitat … right next to the river” as Ross describes it, is just too good for homeless people?

Allow me to help demystify this issue. The area under and around the Reserve Street bridge has been the scene of stabbings, sexual assaults, a pork-chop dispute (attempted homicide) and a murder (completed homicide) in just the past few years. Missoulians should be afraid of visiting this “neighborhood”. The last time I went there in an official capacity I had a cross-bow pointed at me by an unstable person who later committed arson.

And then there’s the trash.

Some of the tweaker camps we have cleaned up in the past have been unbelievably disgusting. I think the article mentioned one site this year requiring 50 bags to clear. I’m sorry, but any do-gooder Missoulian who thinks a dumpster and an outhouse would solve this problem is being seriously naïve. The people involved in managing this area have been doing this for years after the first clean-up, which cost the Montana Department of Transportation over $15,000 dollars.

And now, this year, it’s gotten worse than ever.

When these stories pop up in local media they do so without context. A few pictures and a few quotes then it’s on to some other canned coverage. Does this add to the mystification? Neu, in his letter, focuses on the comment by Ross with the Health Department. He did not spend any time scrutinizing Steve’s explanation of why they are living at the camp:

Steve said they don’t like staying at the Poverello Center because there’s nothing to do, they aren’t allowed to have physical displays of affection and they don’t always get along with the other residents. He also said he understands why the city needs to keep people from living in the Reserve Street Bridge area and why the trash needs to get cleaned up.

“There is a lot of self-regulation at these camps,” he explained. “I wish they would just provide a Dumpster or something, or an outhouse. We would all throw away the garbage if there was a place to put it.”

While David Neu feels his heartstrings being tugged, I have a different take on Steve’s description of their situation. An emergency shelter isn’t supposed to be there to entertain its temporary residents by giving them something to do, it’s there to provide the very basics—food, shelter—so its temporary residents can move on to something else.

And, yes, there are rules. Couples don’t get to do all the things couples would like to do, and other residents can be difficult, but for those who need it it’s a clean facility staffed 24 hours a day by really good people doing some of the most difficult work imaginable within a broken system getting more broken by the day.

A big part of that broken system is a lack of access to treatment for addiction. The camps around Reserve are not sober camps and that is one big reason why people choose to live out there, without the constraint of sobriety the shelter requires. Take that tearful picture the Missoulian splashed big to get an emotional response from its readers. If you look close you can see a glass pipe gripped in the woman’s hand. That’s my clue there are unstated motivations for this particular couple to be taking up residence at the homeless camps.

The main problem David had with the article, though, wasn’t Steve’s comments. Nope, it’s the mystifying comments from Travis Ross about the area being a scenic riparian habitat that could be enjoyed in a less destructive manner than its current use. That comment leads David to speculate Ross harbors some unspoken opinion that this natural beauty makes it “too good for homeless people”.

That is a big leap unsupported by the manner in which this clean-up occurs. The Health Department and the Department of Transportation don’t have to be collaborating with the Poverello Center and the Clark Fork Coalition to educate and inform people of this mostly volunteer effort to minimize the damage being done. The very people displaced by this clean-up acknowledged they were warned this was going to happen.

For other readers worried about what folks will do after the clean-up I’ll tell you a secret: many will return, some of them immediately, to start the process of trashing this area all over again. Even when the weather turns cold, you will still see wafts of smoke curling up from beneath the bridge.

Why? Because this country isn’t going to deal with the growing chasm of inequality that continues to grow, and Montana isn’t going to deal with all the brutal cuts further impacting people struggling with addictions and mental health issues, and Missoula isn’t going to deal with its skyrocketing cost of living.

Unlike David Neu I appreciate people like Travis Ross. Having worked with him during past clean-ups I know he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get the job done. If you haven’t actually been out there to see directly what goes on, then you really don’t know what you’re talking about.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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2 Responses to Demystifying Missoula’s Reserve Street Homeless Camp Clean-Up

  1. djinn&tonic says:

    Lee enterprises, baby, all the News they want you to know.

    • JC says:

      Yep, and Indy publisher Matt Gibson just got his second payoff from his sale of the Indy: he’s promoted to general manager of the Missoulian, Indy and Ravalli Republic. I imagine he’ll get a nice raise, and a big bonus as he continues to milk all three rags through austerity to finance Lee’s corporate debt reduction and shareholder equity plan.

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