by William Skink
I’m a bit befuddled by a controversy that’s brewing, according to the MC, over some Facebook group started by a dude named Kevin Davis. What is the intention of this Facebook group you ask? To clean up the Reserve Street Homeless Camps.
Apparently language is one of the outrage points in this controversy because Kevin Davis said “clearing”. From the link:
Activists pressing for change along North Reserve Street and social service providers found themselves at odds this week over one group’s plan to enter and clean a homeless camp near the Clark Fork River.
“Let’s improve Missoula’s Reserve Street,” a Facebook group moderated by businessman Kevin Davis, posted drone images of the camp to its page and is organizing a “cleanup” next week.
That cleanup was initially billed as a “clearing.”
In an email exchange with United Way of Missoula County, Davis said it was “shocking that we have a year-round encampment on public land along the river … too dangerous and unsanitary for the community to appreciate.”
While his group’s Facebook page initially included the goal of clearing the camp, it has since been redefined as a cleanup. Davis said it’s his desire to work “with other agencies to help steer occupants of the Reserve Street camp to safe shelters and housing options.”
It’s very weird for me to read this, having spent considerable time in my former position at the Poverello Center working in this area to keep trash from accumulating and encampments getting entrenched. I coordinated volunteer efforts with the Health Department and the Clark Fork Coalition to remove TONS of trash, and during those years the use of this area decreased.
I’ve been writing about the camps getting entrenched again because I bike frequently over the Reserve Street bridge and I see it happening. I don’t know why the clean-ups at the scale they need to happen stopped happening, but it’s obvious something needs to be done.
What seemed to work when I was involved was two large clean-up efforts, one in the spring and one in the fall. People in the area would receive ample notice of the day of the clean-up so they would have plenty of opportunity to remove personal belongings before we…gasp!…cleared the trash.
To get it done it took dozens of volunteers, including an ATV group to help transport trash bags from the more remote areas to a central location. The Department of Transportation used to donate a few staff, big trucks and dumpsters. The Sheriff’s Department would do a sweep of the area before the clean-up. And we would work all day bagging and removing all kinds of stuff, sometimes sad relics of the lives being lived out there, sometimes disturbing signs of worse.
I don’t know what happened after I left my position, but I suspect a combination of bad press and squeezed resources led to a re-prioritation of attention elsewhere. I get that. But I also understand the frustration that a town like Missoula, which talks about achieving lofty goals like ZERO WASTE and ENDING HOMELESSNESS, is seemingly allowing a portion of its river bank to be used as a combination toilet/landfill for those who don’t want or can’t stay at the places that, let’s be honest, are already full.
It will be interesting to see what happens. Do the people criticizing Kevin Davis, like Executive Director of United Way, Susan Hay Patrick, have a plan to address this area? Or are they just going to bash the intentions of this community member, then sit back and do nothing?
I got a text from a service provider after making a FB comment stating the clean-ups were no longer happening. I was assured that is not the case, that clean-ups still do occur, and that I had spoken inaccurately. Earlier this year I did see some kind of effort to consolidate trash near the bridge, but the pile was just left there and the bags have since been ripped open. I see some of the feral cats who live in the area as well going through the trash.
I pointed out that the actual encampments aren’t being removed. That’s because the focus is getting people into housing and not clearing out homeless camps, I was told. This is best practices. This is a thorny area of the problem, one where I guess I don’t agree with best practices.
Service providers and homeless advocates should anticipate some degree of public fall-out when a visual example of flagrant disregard for social norms is allowed to persist. Those of us who have behavior that is more easily modified by the threat of consequences like fines and jail time start getting resentful the more we see those glaring visual examples. Especially as stresses mount, like economic stresses.
Speaking as someone looking at a lot of unexpected costs from storm damages and the inevitability of increasing property taxes, I get damn pissed when I clip my bike handle on a grocery cart lurking behind brush on the bridge I bike to work on, to a job where I got passed over recently for a promotion.
At one point in the back and forth texting I was told my comment was alarmist. That is because I referenced the violence that has occurred in this area. To this I should have said GUILTY AS CHARGED. I am an alarmist, I’m a parent with three kids who spent 7 years working at the shelter and from that experience of working at the shelter my understanding of the broken mental health/criminal justice system clusterfuck has me PERPETUALLY ALARMED, especially when I see people I know to be dangerous and capable of violence if not on the right medication or with the right supportive services.
This is not indicative of the majority of people who find themselves without stable housing. And it’s not even representative of the different people temporarily calling the Reserve Street camp home. But it’s something we, as a community, should be more concerned about–and willing to take positive action to help in some way.