In the small mountain city of Missoula, Montana, it’s rare to encounter a sleeping bag or tent on the sidewalk. Unlike in other major cities in the West, Missoula’s homeless population is, for the most part, hidden away. But as the pandemic spread and the economy suffered, 120 tents popped up under the Reserve Street Bridge by the banks of the Clark Fork River.
In cities large and small across the West, the number of people living on streets is impossible to ignore. In San Francisco, one neighborhood placed giant boulders on the sidewalks in 2019 to deter some of the 8,000 people who sleep on the streets each night. Meanwhile in Los Angeles there are now over 40,000 unhoused individuals, and the city is attempting to ban sleeping, camping or sitting around parks, libraries and other public spaces. And even driving around midsize cities like Salt Lake City, which once seemed on the verge of solving the issue, there are plenty of people living under tarps and makeshift tents in the blistering heat of a historically dry summer.
Then there are places like Missoula and Durango, Colorado, towns with smaller populations that never had to contend with large-scale problems of public homelessness, but are now also facing the rise of people sleeping on the streets. These cities are pursuing a different solution: Set aside land for people to camp, making it legal and potentially safer.
While Portland and Seattle experimented with sanctioned encampments years ago, the number of cities considering this potential solution has increased since the rise of COVID-19, when reduced shelter capacity forced people back onto the street and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned against razing existing camps.
When I meet April Seat in July, it’s a temperate, blue-sky day in Missoula. Standing on the valley floor and gazing up at the green mountains that surround the town, I feel a little like I’m inside a postcard.
Seat leads me across a sun-battered dirt lot where 20 tents are pitched on wooden platforms. Some of the camp’s residents have set up umbrellas and plastic beach chairs to escape the sun. The security that allows them to do so makes this place unique, if not desirable. “This space is the best worst place,” Seat says.
Between 20 and 40 people without homes now live at the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, a city-sanctioned encampment and one example of a broader experiment taking shape in cities across the West. Seat is its director and champion. Once a resident of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, she dreams of creating a place where others can also find safety and enough peace to start anew.
Missoula, a town of roughly 75,000, doesn’t look, at first glance, like a place where people struggle financially. Modest homes sell for half a million dollars, and signs of wealth abound — for example, boutiques selling shapeless gray dresses and woven basket purses or women sporting Peloton T-shirts.
Yet the city’s main brick-and-mortar shelter is at capacity, and some homeless people seek refuge at unauthorized camps like the one under the Reserve Street Bridge. The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space was launched at the height of the pandemic to provide a safer alternative.
Seat wants the city to make this program permanent, pointing to its success as a foothold for residents who need help getting into housing or taking other meaningful steps such as getting an ID or finding work.
But camps like these have many opponents, from activists who want solutions to be focused on building affordable housing to business owners and homeowners who don’t want to see tents popping up in their neighborhood.
The camp’s success — or failure — could serve as a model or warning to other cities attempting to grapple with growing numbers of people without a place of their own.
Sanctioned encampments have sprouted up across the West as cities large and small contend with growing populations of unhoused people. Many are in the early stages of development, and there’s not yet definitive data on how many exist.
For instance, in Salt Lake City, a tiny-home village is in the works, while Denver has set up several sanctioned encampments. A similar encampment went up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 2011. And when COVID-19 hit, Los Angeles rented out hotel rooms where its homeless population could seek shelter.
In Missoula, there are a fair amount of services and options for a relatively small city. Beyond the local shelter, the city purchased a hotel to temporarily house the homeless and two affordable housing projects are in the works, although they’re still several years away from completion.
When COVID-19 hit, the shelter had to drastically reduce capacity and started turning people away — more than 50 on one chilly night. Meanwhile, the city’s unsanctioned encampment on Reserve Street tripled in size. A new encampment formed, but law enforcement cleared it. Tents started popping up in neighborhoods.
The sanctioned camp went up as COVID-19 infections peaked to alleviate some of the pressures on the existing system. The county asked two nonprofits — United Way and Hope Rescue Mission — to start an alternative to the shelter; it had heard about cities in New Mexico and Colorado setting up small tent villages with greater access to services.
There’s been plenty of resistance in the community, Josh Slotnick, a county commissioner, told me, and he’s gotten his fair share of angry emails from those who say the sanctioned camp is making Missoula an attractive place for people seeking shelter. But he believes in the project. So far, the proponents of the camp are succeeding in keeping the operation running — the county has approved its continuation and is looking for land to potentially set up a second location.
Slotnick says he’s willing to accept getting voted out due to his support for the sanctioned camp. “I feel like this could be a new response to this crisis that’s crushing the West right now.”
Driving down Highway 93, I turn off onto a dirt road with half a dozen or so parked cars. The two-and-a-half-acre plot sits among open fields, with a small pond and one lone tree for shade.
At the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, the sound of a generator is constant, powering a portable air-conditioning unit and several computers inside (there’s no electricity on the land). Inside a yurt, a round domed tent that serves as camp headquarters, a volunteer dentist is finishing a checkup with a resident, and another man uses one of the computers to search for jobs. Outside there are garden boxes built with salvaged wood, where people have planted lettuce and strawberries.
There’s also no running water on the lot, so five-gallon jugs are brought in each week. In the direct sunlight, I feel small droplets of sweat start to form on my forehead, and the bright light bounces off the dirt.
According to Seat, her staff has managed to get more people housed in six months than they had in the prior two years. One employee tells me that he’ll make calls on their behalf, telling landlords he’s looking for an apartment for a friend, which has been a little easier than working through caseworkers. They can also act as a reference, vouching for the care residents take of their tents.
Seat calls it a “service-rich environment” (there are resume-building workshops, access to caseworkers and art classes), but the most important service they’ve been able to provide is safety and peace of mind.
On the street, people have to deal with police forcing them to move or confiscating their possessions, with other people stealing their things and the potential of violence. Meeting the most basic of human needs, namely a place to sleep, becomes impossible.
At the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, there’s constant staffing, which is funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and donations, and residents don’t need to worry about law enforcement waking them in the middle of the night. Lockboxes stand guard at each tent so people can leave their possessions and meet with caseworkers or go to job interviews.
Seat says another reason their program has been so successful is that she, and most staffers, have all experienced homelessness at one point in their lives. She was an addict for 25 years.
She says, “I don’t fully get where you’re at, because our situations were different. But I understand the brokenness, I understand that addiction, and I understand the loneliness of all of it.”
Seat, who grew up in California, started using drugs when she was just 12 years old and eventually became addicted to meth. “I chose the world, and the world chose me really,” she says.
Her life crumbled when two sheriffs showed up at her door in 2009: one with an order to take away her five-year-old son, and another serving an eviction notice. She became homeless, bouncing between friends’ couches and abandoned hotel rooms. At one point, she lived in a tent on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Eventually she made her way to Missoula, after her husband gave her a one-way ticket, where she began to detox. They were the worst four weeks of her life, she said.
She struggled with sobriety, but in 2013 she got invited to a faith-based meeting and started attending the River of Life, a Christian church that’s a a self-described “hospital for the hurting.” At the end of one sermon, the pastor walked up to her and shook her hand. She heard a voice inside her say, “You’re home.” Through her church she got involved with Hope Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that does outreach with people who are unhoused.
The camp is just the beginning for Seat. She hopes to continue and expand the operation, and one day open a ranch where people can come to heal, get back on their feet like she did and hear a voice telling them that they’re safe and at home.
But for now, this little patch of gravel is enough. It’s a better alternative for those who felt unsafe on the streets, who need an opportunity to be treated as human again.
Later that day, I go to Reserve Street, a sprawling community that exists under the Reserve Street Bridge by the Clark Fork River on land owned by the Montana Department of Transportation. I’m told I’ll need a guide (many people caution me not to go alone), and Robert O’Masters, another Temporary Safe Outdoor Space employee who used to live on the streets of Missoula, says he’ll take me.
To get to the encampment, we hop over the bridge and slide down a dirt embankment. Trails wind through the tall grasses growing on the side of the river. Tarps and tents are everywhere. Trash has been smashed into the ground. Some people have built small yards. There are a few port-a-potties on the far side of the camp. The shade and water make it a more desirable place to live, but it’s also in a floodplain.
“Even where people have no option but to attempt to survive in public spaces, they still can be subject and increasingly are subject to criminal and civil penalties for that,” Tristia Bauman, an attorney for the National Homelessness Law Center, says.
Some worry that sanctioned encampments provide cover for cities to continue conducting sweeps — if they can claim that there are other places for those experiencing homelessness to sleep, there’s more legal standing to force them to move.
Or at least that’s the concern of Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. Boden became homeless when he was 16, in the 1980s. He knows all the ins and outs of shelter systems and has seen many programs fail to make substantial change in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
It all comes down to housing, Boden says, and as the affordable housing system is decimated the homeless system is growing in turn. “You have the audacity to turn around and blame us and say, ‘We need life skills training, we need case management. We all need mental health services.’”
Substance abuse and mental health issues are widespread problems, and focusing on those things doesn’t address the root problem, he says. “Without a home it’s gonna exist.”
The sanctioned encampment also still has some of the problems that anyone sleeping in a tent faces — they are vulnerable to the elements. One month, a windstorm tore apart many of the tents, and residents were moved to hotel rooms for the night. The tents were quickly replaced, but a particularly cold night or a blistering hot day can make the sanctioned encampment unlivable.
Housing is the ultimate solution, and it’s also the desire of everyone I talk to at the sanctioned encampment and on the streets of Missoula.
At the encampment I meet Kayla, an 18-year-old resident with long blond hair, under the shade of a big tree. She grew up in Salem, Oregon, and landed in Missoula after her mother, whom she had recently reconnected with, dropped her off here a few months ago and then immediately left without telling Kayla. She has been in the foster care system for most of her life.
So far her life in Montana, and at the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, has been a bit better. Staff have helped her get out of the foster system and, in a few days, she will meet with a caseworker who’s helping her get an apartment. She wants to finish high school (she’s only three credits away from graduating) and go to college for music (her favorite singers are Dolly Parton and Carrie Underwood) or interior design.
“It’s really peaceful here. There are days where there’s a lot of yelling and stuff, but then there’s days like today, when it’s just quiet and it’s peaceful and it’s the best place to be,” Kayla says.
Before leaving the encampment I say goodbye to Seat, who gives me a hug, a startlingly human motion after a year of distancing.
Seat’s message follows in that simplicity.
“We go out and see who we can touch.”