Missoula’s “Authorized Camping Site” For The Homeless Refugees Of The Reserve Street Encampment Is An Unmitigated Failure

by Travis Mateer

The articles now being written about “frustrations” over changing expectations at the Missoula’s ACS (Authorized Camping Site) were entirely predicable for someone with experience working with subgroups of the broader “homeless” community.

Before getting to how current frustrations are being articulated to the public, it’s important to ask how the ACS was being pitched to the people who would end up there in the first place. The phrase “low barrier” didn’t have to translate into BUILD SHANTY TOWN HERE, but that is what appears to have happened.

After reading through the various gripes–which I don’t find valid in the first place because this site was never intended to be a permanent shanty town build–we get to the problem of ever-changing rules.

The ever-changing nature of the rules at the site provided another factor in McCullough’s decision to leave.

McCullough, Sanem and other campers expressed frustration at a lack of transparency and consistency on the part of the site’s management.

Initially, they said, there were no restrictions placed on the structures. Then the campers were told they couldn’t use pallets to build permanent buildings because those posed a fire hazard. After they dismantled the permanent structures and used coverings to provide shade, they were then told to take down the tarps and awnings above their sites.

“There are no rules to follow until we do it and break the rules,” said McCullough.

What seems to have happened, from my limited perspective, is illegal campers at the Reserve Street encampment were told they’d have carte blanche at this site because there was ONLY a carrot approach, since our local officials are terrified of bad PR from utilizing the stick the rest of us experience when we break the law.

I hope some lessons have been learned about what happens when carrots have to be over-emphasized because no sticks exist thanks to the combined forces of strategic ineptitude emanating from Missoula’s Sheriff and Attorney Offices, and the political spheres of influence they represent.

Until those lessons translate into competent actions on the ground, stories like this will trickle out:

MTN News found the site has had complications with contractors and staff changes. Limited water, shade, trash removal, and bathroom cleaning are what homeless community members and advocates say is the result.

“Trying to stay hydrated and cool, very hard. Shade’s limited. It’s not easy to stay cool, especially in this heat,” said Sean Wilde, who has been staying at the site since January. “We were expecting to have a clean place, clean environment.”

“There’s water inside this one tent that’s right over here, and there’s water stored up in the trailer where the security hangout,” Wilde said during a tour outside of the fence. He also notes that the Culligan water jugs often run out before the next delivery.

Wilde — who is also the secretary with the Hope Health Alliance, a nonprofit advocating group in Missoula — noted some people have generators and fans, while others cool off in the river or by dousing themselves in water.

County officials say water is delivered regularly, but they are working to understand the complaints, and how much additional water might need to be brought on site.

After reading this article, I reached out to the Hope Health Alliance and got a slightly better understanding of the timeline campers are looking at until new rules are instituted: August 10th. I’m hoping to speak with the other person listed at the Hope Health Alliance website to EVEN BETTER understand this advocacy group and their role in protecting shanty town.

One thing I will note about my brief conversation is that Rogers International staff apparently hang out all day in the trailer, where there’s air conditioning, hardly ever coming out to deal with problems.

I guess that answers the question I posed back in January about how Rogers would provide “security” for this site with their nice government contract. What a joke.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more on this developing story.

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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