MISSOULA - Homeless residents and advocates say they are concerned about the conditions, changing rules, and summer heat at the Authorized Camping Site (ACS).
The ACS — which is located on Clark Fork Lane in Missoula — has been in operation since January. It was originally opened as a low-barrier camping site aimed at housing people living under the Reserve Street Bridge. But city officials and campers alike say there have been issues keeping the site clean.
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.
"It makes it difficult to where people are wanting to pack their stuff and just go elsewhere, but there's really nowhere else for them to go," Wilde said.
The nonprofit is speaking out for other residents at the camp who feel they don't have a voice. "They don't feel like they can talk to anyone about it, and that's not okay either," said Wil Harvey who serves as a peer recovery advocate and community ambassador coordinator.
City of Missoula Homeless Programs manager Emily Armstrong explained that the water, trash collection, and bathroom cleaning are handled through county contracts with outside agencies. Some of those contractors have been dealing with staffing challenges.
"It's something we've had challenges with over the course of the lifetime of the ACS, those contractors coming regularly," Armstrong said. "But that has been a challenge, is regular pick up and clean up of those basic needs services. We try, that's something that we're regularly, weekly, daily, working on addressing and trying to problem solve for is when those services fall through."
"Where we wash our hands after using the bathroom, that is filled with water, and that only gets filled when they come out and empty out the porta-potties, which is once to two times a week," Wilde said. "And that's not enough for over 40 campsites."
There's space for four people per campsite, so more than 100 people total at the camp.
"We are regularly and very actively working on those issues. But some of it is just out of our hands from the contractor's side," Armstrong said. "It's part of the contract if a pickup or a cleaning gets missed, we kind of have to troubleshoot on our end until the next one comes by."
Armstrong also said there has been no campsite manager on staff since June. "There are a lot of people who have been doing it and filling the gap of the need for staffing, but we haven't had staff who that is their sole job and that's been a challenge."
Three new city staff members have been hired and will start in August.
"The ACS is a very challenging project for local government. We’ve never done it before, and we are learning as we go. We provide water at the site. The county manages the water contract. There is Culligan, and there is also bottled water. There are restrooms, and there is trash pick-up service. The site offers simply a relatively safe place to pitch tents, with security service, and is low-barrier for entry and low-service," City of Missoula Communications Manager Ginny Merriam wrote in an email to MTN News.
Wilde says residents at the camp have also had issues with rule changes, especially about what kinds of shelters are allowed. "Canopies, any carports for shade, they're telling people to take down," he said, adding that campers are expecting to hear more on that issue on Aug. 10.
Advocates like Harvey say they want people to know it's okay to speak out, "it's okay to stand up for your basic human rights, and there are people out there who are trying to help."
Armstrong said officials will continue to try to work to resolve the issues.