by William Skink
Seven years ago the Montana Department of Transportation (MDOT) spent $17,000 dollars to clean-up the homeless camps under and around the Reserve Street bridge. The Sheriff at the time, Carl Ibsen, visited the camps in person to hand out eviction notices.
That same year I expanded my outreach efforts to the camps with the Poverello’s Homeless Outreach Team, a program I helped launch in 2010. The paid clean-up effort was done by a crew of 4 people and it took them well over a week to do it.
After that first clean-up people returned to the area almost immediately, so I continued doing outreach at the camps. I coordinated volunteer clean-up efforts with the Health Department and the Clark Fork Coalition and together we removed tons of trash.
Here is the Missoulian quoting me in an article from 2015:
Travis Mateer, the homeless outreach coordinator for the Poverello Center, said he comes out to the area once a week to check on a client.
“I look forward to coming out here because I want to have a reason to have a presence,” he said. “We walk around with socks and things and say, ‘Hey, we’re here to give you resources, but I want to let you know that it’s illegal to camp out here.’ And we make sure that they know ahead of time that we’re doing this so people have a chance to remove stuff.”
Mateer said that this year there was a giant “landfill” area where residents had piled their trash.
“That was actually a very positive thing,” he said. “It looks disgusting, but what happened was we attempted to do a cleanup in April but the spring runoff got too high too early so we had to abandon the efforts. And that was actually people living out here helping us out by consolidating trash in one spot to make it easier for us to remove it. So we have a little bit of buy-in from folks out here. Really, I am certainly on board with finding ways to keep this area from being inhabited year-round. Whether that’s finding different uses for this area.”
Doing two volunteer clean-ups a year was, in my opinion, pretty effective. The trash didn’t pile up, permanent structures weren’t established, and the word-of-mouth communication among the population using the area was that is wasn’t a free-for-all the way it had been in years past.
In 2016 I left my job at the Pov. The following year, the last large-scale clean-up effort happened in August. I believe one of the reasons these clean-ups stopped happening at the same scale was because of how the Missoulian decided to report on it, beginning with this picture of tearful Tina.
Here is the story the Missoulian told about this couple that helped reduce the clean-up efforts:
A homeless couple who gave their names as Steve and Tina, and declined to give their last names, were distraught as they sat in the shade a short distance away with two shopping carts full of their belongings. They were in their 40s, and said their house recently had been foreclosed upon. They agreed that they had been given a lot of advance notice of the cleanup, but they were still to the point of tears because their truck recently had been stolen and they didn’t know where to go.
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.”
In the three years since this article was written, a dumpster HAS BEEN PROVIDED to campers in the area, but that hasn’t stopped massive amounts of trash piling up and multiple fires spreading out of control to the point that MDOT is now worried about the structural impacts on one of Missoula’s busiest bridges.
Now the problem is worse than ever, and the collaboration I worked so hard to establish with the Health Department and other stake holders has been destroyed. This is how the Missoula Current is reporting the clusterfuck:
Facing potential fines and penalties from the Missoula City-County Health Department, the Montana Department of Transportation continues to search for a solution to the mounting collection of waste generated by the homeless encampment under the Reserve Street Bridge.
While simply evicting the trespassers from state-owned property would be the easiest solution, that has drawn opposition from homeless advocates, leaving MDT in a bind.
“It’s been pretty clear that a fence and the relocation of the inhabitants there at the encampment isn’t acceptable at this time,” said Bob Vosen, the Missoula District administrator for MDT. “We’re trying to figure out what that means for us from a safety standpoint. We’re trying to figure out what we need to do to protect that infrastructure.”
Having successfully maintained this area for years through collaborative efforts where everyone worked towards a common objective, I find this situation totally maddening. Here’s more:
Several fires have started under the bridge, and that concerns transportation officials.
“We’ve had yet another fire under the bridge. We’re kind of struggling to figure out what we need to do to protect that infrastructure,” Vosen said. “It’s just a matter of time before one of those fires gets hot enough and we end up with a situation where we end up looking at a closure of the bridge.”
The City-County Health Department also is concerned about the amount of human waste and other garbage present at the site. It’s what prompted the notice of violation to begin with, and MDT has until November to resolve the problem.
Taxpayers will be charged with the cleanup.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of money to clean up the area, and now we’re going to have to do it while we’re navigating the encampment,” Vosen said. “We need to get in there and clean it up, or I’m facing significant fines by the day. We’re going to have to clean up stuff from people who don’t want us in the area.”
When I complained about this situation on Facebook, the director of the Poverello Center, Amy Thompson, texted me on my personal phone to tell me how unhelpful my comments were.
Because my criticism is directly informed by my professional experience, and I can speak to the Pov’s change in focus after I left my position, a change that undermined the collaborative relationships I built and has led directly to this clusterfuck of finger pointing.
If anyone wants to know more about why I was effective in my outreach position with the shelter, send me an email at willskink at yahoo dot com.
And stay tuned, because there will be more to say on this topic in the weeks and months ahead.