Missoula’s Tech-Sector: Who Is Being Left Behind?

by William Skink

Claire Thompson, an environmental studies grad student, has penned a great op-ed that appeared in the Missoulian earlier this week. Thompson offers some critical pushback against the trend of pitching outdoor recreation opportunities as a recruiting tool for bringing tech jobs to Missoula.

Here’s an example of the boosterism local media, like Montana Public Radio, is offering tech sages:

“There’s a very strong (return on investment) on someone that makes a software developer’s salary, in terms of the houses that they buy (and how it) increases (the) taxable base,” Evan Tipton, the founder of a local digital-marketing agency told MTPR.

After quoting this statement, Thompson goes on to voice her concerns:

I waited for the follow-up about Missoula’s affordable-housing pressure and homeless crisis, and the shortage of living-wage jobs for Montanans without a white-collar, tech-focused skill set, but it never came. Tipton’s statement sounded like a celebration of displacement.”

Thompson continues:

Attracting out-of-state talent to high-paying positions does increase our tax base, and it can benefit local businesses, especially those selling high-end outdoor gear and other trappings of the lifestyle these potential employees seek. But a single-minded focus on growing Montana’s the industry, if not accompanied by a long-range strategy to both expand affordable housing and manage increased impact on natural resources, harms Montanans who do not directly benefit from a comfortable tech salary.

Last week there were three articles from the Missoula Current about homelessness in Missoula. The common thread in the articles is Missoula County’s inability to do anything about the dozens and dozens of people living in vehicles and fifth wheels and tents around the County, like in East Missoula:

“This is a problem we’ve been working on for over three years now, at least,” said Lee Bridges, chair of the East Missoula Community Council. “I’ve got emails from 2016 about homeless people camping in the public right of way adjacent to Hellgate Canyon Storage, and it has become a mounting problem over the years.”

Kristi Lawrence, owner of Hellgate Canyon, said overnight campers often occupy the right of way outside the storage facility. Some have abandoned their vehicle or taken up long-term residence by placing trailers on blocks in the street.

Others have expressed concern for public safety, saying children use the right of way to access local schools and parks.

While the county’s resolution was ready for adoption Tuesday, questions over what constitutes a vehicle couldn’t be immediately answered, delaying the new rule for a few more days.

“The concern I have is the things that fall outside the definition of a vehicle – the camper on cinder blocks or the motor home that was left out on Highway 200 and sat there for weeks and weeks,” said Lawrence. “The county’s response was that it’s not a vehicle and we can’t tow it.”

And Frenchtown:

At a meeting Thursday, members of the West Valley Community Council in Frenchtown reported transients parking in the public right of way, leaving behind sewage and garbage, and sleeping on a popular bike path in town.

Council chair Jeri Delys said there’s no easy way to address the issue.

“Law enforcement doesn’t have any way to enforce it unless there’s a sewage leakage, unless there’s a hazard, so they can’t ticket,” she said.

Seeking guidance on the matter, West Valley called on Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier to offer his advice at a community meeting Thursday night.

But Strohmaier explained that even the county can’t do much, as commissioners are not authorized by the state to enact a “no camping” ordinance. What they can do, however, is regulate parking.

With the Reserve Street camps, the Missoula Current took a different approach and attempted to humanize those living in the camps by telling the partial story of one couple. Unfortunately, for those experiencing empathy fatigue, elements of this couple’s story probably won’t be well received. Like this:

The couple met at a homeless shelter in Colorado but arrived in Missoula on separate paths. Legault hitchhiked into town and decided to stay. It was “a gut feeling” about the place, as he put it. Barnett fled what she described as a series of broken relationships, each as violent as the next.

Now the two work as a team, making ends meet on $700 a month in disability. When the money runs out, Legault crosses the bridge to “fly a sign.” He prefers North Reserve near the Burger King restaurant.

This couple already has a housing voucher, but why spend limited funds on rent when they can live in homeless camp rent-free?

But while local homeless advocates would like to see the likes of Legault and Barnett leave the camp for permanent housing, the two aren’t sure they can make it work.

For one, Barnett said, one of her two dogs isn’t yet certified as a service dog, and that drives up the required down payment, even if the landlord accepts pets. That down payment is another hurdle on an income of $700. They fear rent and utilities would consume the entirety of their limited income, leaving little means for other needs.

“I mean, I really don’t want to be out here,” said Legault. “But you can’t rent a place and pay your bills for $700 a month. You can’t even move into a place for $700 a month.”

“Right now, I have a Section 8 voucher and we’re trying to find housing, but the application fees range from $10 to $60 a piece, and If you don’t get approved you lose the money,” said Barnett. “I have a voucher but we’re on that waiting list for housing.”

And even if they get into housing, the need to supplement their disability income by flying a sign probably won’t abate:

“On disability, it doesn’t do very well and it doesn’t go very far,” said Barnett. “Even if we had a place to live, he’d still be out flying a sign, but he’d be flying a sign sooner than we do now. Now, his income lasts a week or two, though maybe not this month because of what we had to buy.”

I appreciate the Missoula Current actually going to the camps and telling this story because it highlights the dynamics at play, and the main destructive dynamic fueling homeless encampments and people living out of cars and campers is economic inequality.

This growing economic inequality is getting worse and could fuel a backlash against helping those who choose to relocate to a mountain town with a 3% vacancy rate in the rental market of a low-population state with a fragmented Medicaid support system.

I don’t see how these trends are going to improve when our elected leaders can’t even bring themselves to include inclusionary zoning as a tool to require developers add affordable housing to their building projects.

Instead Missoula County will keep playing wack-a-mole with band-aid resolutions to keep County streets from becoming the next homeless hot-spot. This will not inspire confidence from Missoula residents as they are asked to pay more and more in taxes ever year as systemic problems like homelessness worsens.

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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