by William Skink
Last August I reported on Missoula’s bridge to nowhere. This publicly-funded bridge providing river access from West Broadway, next to the Imagination Brewery, is a project I was directly involved with during my time as the Homeless Outreach Coordinator at the Poverello Center.
From conversations I have had with Morgan Valiant, the Parks and Rec. lead on this project, the city didn’t know what it was getting itself into when they got this parcel of land, and not because of any of its natural features, but because of the human problem.
I did plenty of outreach in this area after the Poverello Center opened its new center on West Broadway, so I am quite familiar with the terrain and with the hope articulated by Parks and Rec. that building a bridge would somehow encourage a different kind of use of this area.
Did I think spending a half million dollars in public money on a bridge across the street from the homeless shelter was going to somehow bring in an barrage of dog walkers to run out the meth users? Hell no. But I don’t get to direct public money to projects that any bank would laugh at funding.
So, where are we with this little patch of Missoula on Monday, April 13th, 2020? Like I suspected, the cost of the bridge was significantly more than a half million dollars. According to the Missoulian, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency spent $800,000 dollars in public money to make the situation on the island worse, and even better, there’s really nothing the police are going to do about it. From the link:
When the park was unveiled this past October, city officials billed the improved access as a deterrent to people seeking shelter there, saying an increase in activity by walkers and bird watchers would make it a less attractive place for people to camp.
But the opposite appears to be true, and the evidence is building up, with at least five camps cobbled together from litter, tarps and driftwood scattered across the island, in addition to a smattering of campfire rings littered with cans and cigarette butts.
Come on, birdwatchers! Get a little more gumption about your passion, even if you might accidentally stumble onto someone’s makeshift shelter.
Bird watchers and dog walkers are not going to be emboldened to visit this part of Missoula. There were a few situations that even I had to retreat from, one involving a man with a machete (he was old and drunk and I knew him well enough to know he wasn’t a threat).
Getting back to the article, here’s the part where the taxpayer foots the bill because the police don’t know what to do about this problem:
The improvements to the island, which totaled about $800,000, were funded by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, through tax increment financing in the area’s urban renewal district, which is funded by collecting a portion of the property taxes within the district.
While unveiling the improvements, MRA assistant director Chris Behan said the Missoula Police Department was instrumental in advocating for the work, saying former Chief Mike Brady had said police couldn’t singlehandedly stop the island from being used as a camp for homeless people, and that the improvements would help.
First, before we continue, who got the bid for this
$500,000 $800,000 project? And why did it cost $300,000 more than expected? These might be pertinent details to include, considering everyone advocating for this expenditure of public funds was wrong about its proclaimed impact, and the island is now “overrun”.
Now, here’s our local PD using a lot of words that ultimately leads one to assume a continued hands-off approach, because if they push people out by the river, then they might become a bigger problems in neighborhoods:
Police spokesperson Sgt. Travis Welsh said that while law enforcement had an amount of responsibility for maintaining the park through enforcing anti-littering and anti-camping ordinances, police were weighing many different factors in how to deal with the current situation.
With COVID-19 forcing people to avoid crowded spaces, Welsh said he expected people who might typically seek shelter at the Poverello Center are instead choosing to camp.
“We are not without compassion and realize people are struggling and trying to follow directives of the governor and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and they’re trying to stay healthy,” Welsh said. “People are trying to practice social distancing, and that includes the homeless. So we’re trying to balance those things. We want our parks to be places where anybody can go and enjoy them, but if you tell people they can’t sleep there, they’re going to sleep someplace else. It’s not that we are going to allow anyone to sleep there, but it’s one of the things we weigh when we approach the situation.”
In the pre-pandemic world, before a simultaneous health and economic crisis hit us, hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money could be casually thrown around to unnamed developers for doomed-to-fail projects like Missoula’s bridge to nowhere.
In a post-pandemic world experiencing an economic depression, federal bribes won’t be enough to keep the beleaguered public from experiencing the brunt of the economic pain that’s coming.
I hope those who come up with creative ways to fail with public money remember that as they use Covid-19 as a convenient excuse for why no-go zones now exist in Missoula.