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Bozeman businesses sue city over response to urban camping

The lawsuit alleges that city leaders have failed to police the growing population of so-called urban campers.
Mike Hope
Posted at 10:47 AM, Oct 04, 2023

A group of local business owners has filed a lawsuit alleging that Bozeman has failed to enforce its own laws when it comes to those camped on the city’s streets.

From threats to employees and costly vandalism to environmental concerns like garbage and the removal of human waste, the lawsuit filed in Gallatin County district court details a number of claims made by local businesses who maintain city leaders aren’t willing to police the growing population of so-called urban campers.

“We can’t even get the cops to come out and basically do anything,” Mike Hope, owner of the Aspen Crossing building just off North Seventh Avenue, told Montana Free Press this week. “Every police officer we talk to, they’ve told us they can’t do anything. They’ve been told to stand down by the city manager and the city attorney.”

Bozeman city staff acknowledged the lawsuit in an email Tuesday, adding the city would comment on the issue in a written legal response. “We always welcome public comments and opportunities to collaborate on issues facing our community,” the email said. Bozeman Mayor Cyndy Andrus declined an interview.

Hope, who also owns the Rocking R Bar downtown, is among the six plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit Aug. 30, alleging that Bozeman is ignoring its duty to enforce laws after being repeatedly asked to respond to situations involving homeless people living in various urban camps in the city.

Specifically, the lawsuit maintains the city is ignoring the following illegal activities: loitering, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, public inebriation, public urination and defecation, drug use, domestic violence and obstructing publicly owned rights of way.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Kenyon Noble Lumber Company, Olsson Investments, the Modulus Corporation, Rapid Car Wash and the Pitt Training Facility.

Filed by Bozeman attorneys Brian Gallik and Susan Swimley, the lawsuit asks the court to order the city to move the urban encampments from near the plaintiffs’ businesses “to more suitable, safe and healthy locations” and submit a detailed plan, with deadlines and action items, “assuring the health, safety and security of all existing urban encampments on public lands or public streets.”

The plaintiffs aren’t seeking monetary damages but do ask the court to award attorneys fees for the cost of bringing the lawsuit.

Ashley Ogle, co-owner of Kenyon Noble, said customers often don’t feel comfortable when they navigate past the rows of broken-down campers and RVs bordering her business on Oak Street in Bozeman.

She said the piles of garbage that collect at the camp along with buckets of human feces her staff have seen being dumped into a nearby stream constitutes a major health hazard that the city should stop.

What’s more, Ogle said she believes the city’s proposed urban camping ordinance lacks any real enforcement teeth and isn’t designed to help anyone, describing both the 30-day camping limit and $25 fines for violators outlined in the rules as “pathetic.” The city commission is expected to consider the proposed ordinance again later this month.

“Letting people live like this and knowing there’s mental health and substance abuse issues there, that is not compassion to me,” Ogle told MTFP.

Ogle said she’d be willing to donate money and time to help create a safer and more permanent place for urban campers in the city but added that nobody seems to be listening when she asks for help from local leaders.

A travel trailer, RV, and a converted school bus mark the outskirts of an urban encampment near West Hemlock Street and Fifth Avenue in Bozeman. Business owners Mike Hope and Donnie Olsson say this particular camp has cost them both customers and revenue.

“We’ve had these health and safety concerns now for three years,” Ogle said. “We’ve really had no choice but to take legal action.”

Donnie Olsson, a local real estate agent with a commercial office rental business, said the city should enforce the laws in the city’s code.

Olsson told MTFP that he estimates his business lost between $75,000 to $100,000 after a group of urban campers made their home just down the block from the office building he owns at 510 West Hemlock St.

“I used to have six offices fully leased,” Olsson said, describing a complete exodus of renters from his building that he believes is connected to the nearby homeless activity.

Although a few renters are now back, Olsson said not a day goes by that he doesn’t hear a client or business associate talk about the urban camping problem down the street. The ongoing controversy has morphed into a huge distraction.

“I’ve taken a monetary hit, and it’s extremely mentally draining,” Olsson said. “If I was to go sell my building right now, there’s no way I’d get the value out of it.”

Still, Olsson said he’s more interested in prodding the city to define logical steps in helping the homeless rather than asking for punitive damages.

“Even though I’ve lost money, I’m not after money,” Olsson said. “I’d like to see them enforce the current ordinances that are in place, and try to come up with solutions that help everyone out, including the people who don’t have a place to live.”

This article originally appeared in the Montana Free Press.