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Missoula Urban Camping Work Group discusses long road to solution during second meeting

The group's goal is to find a long-term solution to unhoused people sleeping overnight in Missoula parks and neighborhoods
Missoula Urban Camping Work Group meeting 2
Posted at 12:09 PM, Mar 07, 2024

MISSOULA — Some Missoula residents are concerned about an uptick in urban camping as the weather gets warmer.

The Urban Camping Work Group through the City of Missoula is meant to find a long-term solution to unhoused people sleeping overnight in parks and neighborhoods.

The group’s second meeting was held on Wednesday, March 6, 2024.

The special work group — which was organized by Mayor Andrea Davis earlier this year — plans to meet at least four times, with a possibility of a fifth meeting if a decision is not reached.

A recommendation for a new plan or ordinance will be presented before the Missoula City Council once the meetings conclude.
All City Council members are taking part in the group along with local business owners, nonprofit leaders and both housed and unhoused community members.

The Urban Camping Work Group started off Wednesday's five-hour-long meeting by stating their main interest in participating.

Some of the interests included making legally sound and just policy, preventing community division and holding systems accountable.

Everyone also shared the public comments they had received since the last meeting.

Part of participation in the group is opening up an inbox for residents to send messages and ideas. The process is meant to ensure the group hears from as much of the community as possible.

Many of the participants said a lot of comments were cynical — not believing that the city would be able to come to a decision. Others suggested possible solutions and specific concerns.

After everyone stated their interests, they divided into small groups that shared similar answers. In the end, there were four main interests, or goals, agreed upon.

The first was to find an economically feasible and practical option.

The participants in this group were concerned with the impacts of urban camping on Missoula neighborhoods, how different sites can be monitored, and where expectations can be enforced.

The second interest was to understand and listen to the needs of the community. This group decided that an effective policy would only be possible if the perspectives of everyone in the community were considered. They also suggested looking towards other successful cities for inspiration.

The next group was composed only of council members Amber Sherrill and Sierra Farmer who want to make sure that whatever the solution, responsibility is shared among multiple community partners.

The last interest group was compassion-driven. They focused on finding a solution for the unhoused community and making sure those experiencing homelessness had a safe, comfortable place to go.

During the last exercise, the participants were asked to split up into five different groups, each made up of people with varying interests and perspectives.

Each group was given an aspect of a solution to brainstorm on.

The aspects were vision and guiding principles, identifying and managing impacts, cost of resources and money, regulations and potential services and non-city providers.

The group tasked with a vision statement said clear communication and a multi-tiered approach would be key.

The managing impacts group highlighted where the city is currently lacking in resources, including physical resources, space and staff.

They said determining a coordinated approach could save money and prevent confusion among the unhoused community.

The participants tasked with finding ideas to fight a financial gap found the best solution would be to advocate for funds at the state level.

Poverello Center Executive Director Jill Bonny — a member of this group — referenced Spokane, a city that nearly eliminated its urban camping problem by getting state assistance.

Those who discussed possible regulations decided the most important part was to expand education around any new or existing policies.

For example, it's important that those experiencing homelessness understand where they are and are not allowed to sleep.

The last group identified the many non-city partners that already exist but said a large barrier in creating an authorized campsite is finding an organization and area to support it.

Throughout the conversations, some topics of contention included the criminalization of homelessness and whether legal action should be involved in their decision-making.

There were also concerns that “camping” was insensitive language for those sleeping outside.

The next meeting will be spent diving deeper into the solution conversation and addressing what is actually possible.

During public comment, residents around the Johnson Street Shelter spoke about increased safety concerns in their neighborhood. While others wanted to advocate for the unhoused population.

The next meetings scheduled are March 27 and April 17, 2024. Both will be held from 12 p.m. until 5 p.m. at the Missoula County Elections Office on North Russell Street.