MISSOULA — The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) has announced they will ask people camping illegally under the Reserve Street bridge to leave by the end of the month.
Thursday's decision comes as Missoula Mayor John Engen says that now a new legal camping site nearby is ready, the state can take action.
Reporter Katie Miller received a first look at the new site on Clark Fork Lane and learned more about why the state, city, and county say now is the time for change.
The MDT is asking residents at the homeless encampment under the Reserve Street Bridge to move following years of illegal camping, fires, and trash accumulation.
"You're not going to be able to continue to reside here indefinitely,” MDT Missoula District Administrator Bob Vosen said Thursday.
"This is a step, it's an experiment, we are not altogether sure it will work,” Engen noted.
He added that the addition of a new, legal, camping site Missoula will now enforce illegal trespassing, "law enforcement will have the ability to say, ‘look you can't camp here, here's an alternative for you’."
Reserve Street is a state road and much of the property the encampment sits on under the bridge is state property. Engen and the Missoula County commissioners have asked MDT to wait to enforce trespassing laws in the area until there are more shelter options in Missoula.
That option will begin operating on Tuesday, Jan. 18 and the legal camping site on city-owned property is where the people living under the Reserve Street Bridge will be asked to go.
The new site has 40 spots here where people can come and set up their own tents and there will be resources and security on site. It’s meant to be a transitional place where people can come and get resources and eventually get into permanent housing.
"These are folks who experienced remarkable trauma in their lives, and their ability to trust is extraordinarily limited, and they've had a lot of promises unfulfilled in their lives, so building their trust and then getting them on the right path is a big deal,” Engen explained.
MDT took some early steps to secure the area near the bridge last year and Vosen noted that now if people refuse to leave, the agency will call law enforcement.
“The 25th is when we will be installing the gates, fixing the few places in the fence that have been damaged,” Vosen said. “That'll all get buttoned up, and at that point we will be asking law enforcement to enforce trespassing in the area."
The Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) from the Poverello Center is working with the homeless population to help them prepare for the move.
"I think we're looking at anywhere from 15-20 people down there,” one HOT Team member said. “There's adequate space here, plenty of space for a lot of our folks, not just from Reserve Street, but the entire homeless population to fit in here."
Local government has used federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to set up the site.
"I'm super proud that we are doing this. We are actually attempting to address this,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick.
MTN News asked Mayor Engen how the city is working to reduce Missoula's homeless population.
"Working through our 10-year plan to end homelessness. I think we don't give ourselves enough credit as a community for all of the things that we do,” Engen said. “I believe that the situation would be much worse but for the fact that we have that 10-year plan and we're intentional about it."