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'It's a nightmare:' Billings downtown businesses worried about urban camping

Billings Homeless Downtown
Posted at 5:45 PM, Oct 04, 2023

Businesses in downtown Billings, located just south of the train tracks, are speaking out about increasing urban camping in their area.

The businesses are located near the Montana Rescue Mission at 2804 Minnesota Ave., so the owners said that while they are used to interacting with the homeless population, it lately has gotten out of control.

"It's an absolute nightmare," said Terri Todd founder of the Gratitude in Action thrift store around the corner on South 30th Street. "People are scared to come here."

Todd's store is founded on the principle of offering low-cost clothing to customers, and she said the increase in crime has affected their business.

"It's not the traditional homeless activity we are used to," Todd said. "We're seeing a lot of trafficking and drug activity."

Just across the street, Kirk's Grocery, an art gallery and community center, is noticing the same problem. Owner Shane de Leon said that in their five years of business, they've never had a problem with transient people living on their block.

"There's just a ton of people out here trying to survive," de Leon said. "People just park in two-hour parking spots and haven't left for two months. You have urban camping happening, and that is just going to breed into other things."

Billings Homeless

Urban camping has become a problem in other parts of the state, and de Leon said that he and other business owners are worried about what will happen if the city does not step in. In Bozeman, five businesses filed a lawsuit against the citydue to what they said was a lack of response.

Billings police said that they are aware of the problem area, but they note that part of town has seen high numbers of the homeless population for years. Downtown Resource officer Mike Freeman said that a large portion of his day is spent patrolling the area.

"With having the rescue mission there, St. Vincent de Paul, and Gratitude in Action there, a lot of that is why you're seeing people congregate to that area," Freeman said. "That's where their services are, so that's why they hang around that area."

Freeman said that all he and his team can do is issue citations, and that he knows those alone won't change the problem.

"It doesn't help the underlying issue that each individual is dealing with on their own basis," Freeman said. "Whether it is addiction or whatever their situation is that is causing them to be homeless, a citation doesn't give them the support they need."

Yellowstone County Continuum of Care Chair Kari Boiter said that according to numbers from last January, nearly 28% of the homeless population resides in Billings.

"A lot of times, we focus on what we see as the problem, which is what is visible," Boiter said. "We don't focus on what's working to actually solve the problem."

Boiter said there is currently a cycle of arrest and release that needs to be broken in order for any actual change to happen.

"You can keep moving these people into other areas, but until we provide them with a place that is warm, dry and stable, we aren't fixing the issue," Boiter said. "We're just moving the problem to another neighborhood or another area."

Downtown Homeless

City Park Officer Nathan Schara said that he has noticed an increase in urban camping in the Billings parks.

"A big chunk of the calls we receive are for urban camping," Schara said. "We always try and reinforce what the law is and try and get ahead of that, so that it doesn't explode and turn into something we just can't handle."

The city of Billings does have a no-camping ordinance, but Schara said it's difficult to enforce in areas where large groups of transients spend their time.

"What we see is them shifting from where they can receive services to a few blocks away and then they'll go back for another meal," Schara said. "Basically, it's sort of how they stay within the rules."

Schara said it's hard to blame them and that until they receive the proper support, cracking down on the urban camping won't fix the larger societal issue.

"They're trying to survive out there," Schara said. "They need somewhere to go, and they need that assistance. If you cannot provide that, that's when you become, as a city, overwhelmed."

It's a problem that police said they are working to fix, but one that takes time. For business owners like Todd, they hope that change comes sooner, rather than later.

"We can't arrest ourselves out of this problem. We can't incarcerate it," Todd said. "It just doesn't work. What we have to do is find long-term permanent solutions."