It was four years ago when the Missoula Reserve Street homeless camp first got into the news.
The camp had been there since the early-2000s. A decade after it was established, however, neighboring property owners were saying it was “an unsafe area for the public,” and that they wanted “a long term solution” to the issue.
We learned just how unsafe that camp was on the night of July 31, 2014.
A late-night argument broke out at the camp between three residents there, and 38-year-old transient Jack Berry “was viciously beaten and shot to death, before his body was dumped into the Clark Fork River.”
The body was found on August 5 and several weeks later they found the killer in Louisiana, 28-year-old Kevin Lino.
A year later, Lino was sentenced to 40 years in prison for deliberate homicide. A few months earlier, the person that had helped him commit the crime was sentenced to 15 years, with 10 suspended. Both men were transients, just passing through the area.
The late-summer murder shocked the community, and law enforcement knew it had to get tough on the homeless. A few days after the murder, the University of Montana Police Department raided the homeless camp “nestled a third of the way up Mount Sentinel,” which sat “just yards away from the switchbacks facing the river.”
Over a dozen transients “were camped illegally on University property,” the Kaimin reported that September. Two of them were the girlfriends of the killers from the Reserve Street homeless camp, who were subsequently arrested near the broken-up camp a week after the murder. Both eventually had their charges dismissed.
At the time of the murder, there were at least six homeless camps on the Kim Williams Trail.
“The jurisdiction up there is basically a patchwork of state, federal, university and private lands,” UM Police Department Captain Ben Gladwin said. This has caused local agencies to struggle “to come up with an efficient way to patrol the area.
As far as I know, the camps along the Kim Williams trail no longer exist. The Reserve Street homeless camp, however, is still there and still going strong…even after the flooding of a month ago forced many to leave.
I decided to go down to the camp this morning. My goal was to take images and talk to some of the people living there.
I was able to do both, and this is what I learned.
Flooding and the Missoula Homeless Camp
There are plenty of small trails leading away from the bridge, and I took a few to get an idea of where the camp was and who was in it.
Most of the camp is now on the west side of the bridge, along the south bank of the Clark Fork River.
Much of the camp is gone, having been flooded-out a month ago. The people that remain have moved to higher ground overlooking the river.
At the beginning of May, KPAX reported on the flooding at the homeless camp, saying that those living there had “lost everything they had” as the water hit their campsites and filled their tents.
A few weeks later the Indy quoted two people “who deliver socks and food to the encampment each week” as saying that “about 20 people were living there before the floodwaters rose.”
Those living in the camp had hard times. One woman I spoke with for just a few moments – she didn’t trust me and didn’t want to say much – was very unhappy with how things had gone.
“Our state doesn’t give a shit about us,” she yelled as she was walking away. “Thank God for Idaho!”
I’m not sure what she meant about that. Perhaps she took off for the state and then came back…I dunno.
What we do know is that lots of people come and go from the camp.
In July 2015, Missoula Sheriff TJ McDermott figured the Reserve Street Bridge was “big enough to hide over 25 of Missoula’s homeless.”
That was 3 years ago, and since then the number of people that call the place home has gone up substantially.
One of them is an older man named Mel, who’s been living at the camp for over 2 years now.
I spoke with Mel, and he was the only one that didn’t mind if I took a photo of him.
He’s been living in Missoula since 1988, but a couple years ago he “got tired of the rat race” and paying rent and all the rest of it.
He decided to live outdoors on his own terms, and he’s got a pretty good setup in the camp…the nicest I saw.
It’s such a nice setup, in fact, that Mel didn’t want to leave it when the flood waters came. He was the man that authorities had to rescue as the water inundated the area.
Mel lives on Social Security, so once a month he heads to the Post Office and gets his check. He likes living this way and has no plans to change.
Many others feel the same way. Mel told me that before the flooding came, around 75 to 100 people were living in the camp. Now he figures it’s around 25 to 35.
Perhaps those delivering socks were mistaken in their 20-person number, or maybe Mel was mistaken in his 75-to-100-person number.
Either way, we know lots of people are living here.
High Housing Rates and Missoula Homelessness
None wanted to be photographed or to give their names, but each gave me a little bit of their story.
One woman who was probably in her 50s said that she was disabled with some kind of lung disorder, and that her $700 a month in disability wouldn’t cover the rent on an apartment.
Even if it did, where would she get money for food and other things?
The other woman with her, who was around the same age, said she was working on getting into a place. She seemed pretty worked-up, and was perhaps a little drunk or maybe had a mental illness of some sort.
The guy they were with looked to be in his late-30s or early-40s. He’d lived in the camp over the winter.
I asked him how he stayed warm and he said he just used a campfire. He said cops don’t bother them too much about campfires in the winter, but they do crack down a lot during the summer.
“It’s just too expensive to get a place here,” he said when I asked why he was choosing to live this way.
The average Missoula rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $625 and two-bedrooms are $1,100.
Many prices are higher, as the apartment vacancy rate in the city was 2.9% in 2016…down from 4% the previous year.
The home situation is even worse. We know that in Missoula, housing prices more than doubled from 1990 to 2000, while wages only increased 2% during that time.
Today it’d take a household income of $89,000 a year to afford one of Missoula’s $275,000 average-priced homes. The median income for Missoulians, however, is just $42,815.
These high prices mean that upwards of 30% of Missoula homeowners spend over 35% of their income on housing, and renters spend 28-55%.
Additionally, “buildings downtown that were once reserved for low-income renters have been developed into more expensive real estate, namely condominiums,” UM researcher Jacob Coolidge told us in 2012. “This has led to unfortunate circumstances in which lower income renters were priced out of their homes.”
Missoula’s Total Homeless Population
Of the 240 people interviewed, a total of 205 of them said they “were interested in finding permanent housing, or 89%.
The survey found that the top three needs for those people to get permanent housing were:
- Affordable housing
- Bus passes
A big problem at the time was that 78% of those interviewed weren’t able to come up with the median Missoula rent of $700.
We know that 65% of those interviewed were living in Missoula “a year or more” before they became homeless. The biggest reasons they lost their homes were:
- They couldn’t afford rent
- Low wages
- Domestic abuse
At the time of the survey we knew that between 2.5 million and 3.5 million Americans would either live on the streets or in a shelter over the course of a year. Sadly, 23% of those people are veterans.
This includes 600,000 families, with 1.3 million children becoming homeless as well.
We know that between 2009 and 2011, Montana’s homeless population increased by 48%. During the same time, the nation’s homeless population decreased by 1%.
In 2011 we had 574 homeless people in Missoula, though the next year that was supposedly down to 200. By 2014 we were up to 665.
A survey in January 2016 told us we had 395, with 102 of them unsheltered. Then in May of that year, UM came out with a report telling us the number of homeless people was actually 533.
That means Missoula saw a 265% increase in its homeless population over a 5-year period.
Causes of Homelessness in Missoula
Sheriff’s Office Captain Ron Taylor put it like this: “As much as the community would like to help and offer them a different place to live, they want to live in a place like that.”
“Part of the reason some of them are homeless is because they are criminals,” one UM Police Department member said. “Either they run from the law or choose to live in a way in which they cannot be found.”
“While mental health issues and addiction often play a part in the homeless equation,” Poverello Center executive director Allison Thompson said, “a lack of coping skills is often overlooked as a contributing factor.”
She explained how many homeless people struggle with “how to write a resume, how to interview, show up to a job on time, clean my house and do these basic skills.”
A big part of the broken system “is a lack of access to treatment for addiction,” William Skink says. “The camps around Reserve are not sober camps and that is one big reason why people choose to live out there, without the constraints of sobriety the shelter requires.”
The only blog in the state to talk about this camp is Missoula’s Reptile Dysfunction, which is written by William Skink
Skink worked at the Missoula Poverello Center in the past as the organization’s Coordinator of Homeless Outreach and made “weekly visits to make the homeless aware of their options.”
In both August 2017 and April 2018 he wrote articles on the camp and what he’d seen and experienced there while helping with the yearly trash cleanups.
One site that year required “50 bags to clear” and the first year the cleanup took place, the Montana Department of Transportation spent over $15,000 to get the job done. Over 25 tons of trash were removed during the 2017 cleanup, a number “more than triple the amount of past clean-ups.”
It’s not just trash, but crime that has people alarmed.
Sheriff McDermott reported that between April 2014 and June 2015, a total of 113 calls came into local law enforcement in regard to incidents at the camp.
We know that in 2012, St. Patrick’s Hospital had to spend over $4 million giving free services to the homeless.
And of course the local jail has filled up with many transients that have come here and then committed crimes.
There is hope for these people, and plenty of community options. For instance, Missoula’s Union Gospel Mission worked with a man at the camp as the flooding started. He became a member of the church and they in turn helped him “find the resources he needs to get transitional housing.”
If you want to change, you can.
If you want to get serious about finding housing, getting a job and keeping it, and then getting your life back together, many Missoulians will help.
Many of those individuals wind up at the homeless shelter, where there are a lot more support options.
But a lot of people don’t want to change, and they end up in the Reserve Street homeless camp.
The camp has been there for over a decade, and I suspect it’ll be there a decade from now.
Most of its residents are from Missoula, or at least lived here for some time before losing their homes.
They’re people…some that have fallen on hard times and some that have signed-up for the life.
Either way, they’re a part of our community…whether we like it or not.
Bridge, Brandon. “Missoula’s Affordable Housing Crisis.” Montana Business Quarterly. 5 July 2017. http://www.montanabusinessquarterly.com/missoulas-affordable-housing-crisis/
Brouwer, Derek. “Nine men an island: homelessness and high water.” Missoula Independent. 17 May 2018. https://missoulanews.com/news/nine-men-an-island-homelessness-and-high-water/article_0fb59968-5946-11e8-98d1-4b24b0553763.html
Coolidge, Jacob Daniel. “Spare Some Change?: The Policing of Shelter-Resistant Homeless in Missoula, Montana.” University of Montana ScholarWorks. 2012. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1919&context=etd
Fisher, Don. “Missoula commissioners revisit Reserve Street homeless camps.” KPAX. 21 July 2015. http://www.kpax.com/story/29601145/missoula-commissioners-revisit-reserve-street-homeless-camps
Gaudioso, Brea. “Moving Along: A wave of violence unsettles law enforcement, Missoula’s homeless community.” Montana Kaimin. 11 September 2014. http://www.montanakaimin.com/features/moving-along/article_7a467e2c-3a24-11e4-9332-0017a43b2370.html
Haake, Kathryn. “Reserve Street camp murderer sentenced to 40 years in prison.” Ravalli Republic. 22 July 2015. https://ravallirepublic.com/missoula/news/local/article_44ac87db-ff62-5608-83a5-a0cd4f33fae4.html
Jacobson, Maxine. “Homelessness and Housing Instability in Missoula: Needs Assessment 2010.” Praxis – Building Knowledge for Action. PDF report. 27 December 2010. https://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/DocumentCenter/View/5524/HomelessNeedsAsses1102?bidId=
Kidston, Martin. “New Poverello Center director to focus on chronic homelessness.” Missoula Current. 23 November 2016. https://www.missoulacurrent.com/general/2016/11/poverello-director-homelessness/
Skillman, Matthew. “Plan being formed to end homelessness in Missoula.” ABC Fox Montana. 1 June 2017. http://www.abcfoxmontana.com/story/35571009/plan-being-formed-to-end-homelessness-in-missoula
Skink, William. “Demystifying Missoula’s Reserve Street Homeless Camp Clean-Up.” Reptile Dysfunction. 28 August 2017. https://reptiledysfunction.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/demystifying-missoulas-reserve-street-homeless-camp-clean-up/
Skink, William. “Revisiting Missoula’s Reserve Street Homeless Camp Clean-Up.” Reptile Dysfunction. 5 April 2018. https://reptiledysfunction.wordpress.com/2018/04/05/revisiting-missoulas-reserve-street-homeless-camp-clean-up/
Thomas, Russ. “Floodwaters force those living in homeless camp to seek higher ground.” KPAX. 1 May 2018. http://www.kpax.com/story/38088517/floodwaters-force-those-living-in-homeless-camp-to-seek-higher-ground