Directing residents to the year-round shelter, the city of Bozeman has begun clearing homeless encampments
On a warm afternoon in early June, Bozeman Deputy Police Chief Andy Knight is working to clear out a makeshift campsite on the east side of Bozeman Pond.
Leftover food items are put into trash bags. Three tents are set up, but no one's here. Knight says they can pick up their property at the police station.
“Things that are like coolers, things that might be somebody’s sleeping bag, if somebody has a bag with some personal belongings and effects in there, we’ll store all of those things,” he said.
After years of non-enforcement, the city of Bozeman earlier this year began clearing out these homeless encampments set up in public parks. The reasoning officials gave is that for the first time, the city’s shelter is now staying open year-round.
A few weeks before Knight and others arrived to clean up the site at Bozeman Pond, an outreach team of police officers, city parks and the nonprofit Human Resource Development Council let people camping here know changes were coming. Besides Bozeman Pond, an encampment along the East Gallatin River not far from Bozeman Beach was cleared.
“This’ll be an ongoing effort to make sure that people understand they can’t camp in the parks," Knight said. "They can’t spend the night in our parks. It’ll be one of those things that we’ll be doing outreach throughout the entire summer."
Bozeman city code does not allow people to put up “temporary structures” in city parks without permission and there are curfews. But, until recently, those laws were not enforced because of a 2018 federal court ruling.
In the case of Martin vs. Boise six people experiencing homelessness challenged Boise, Idaho’s anti-camping laws.
“The 9th circuit said that it is cruel and unusual punishment for a city or municipality to make it a criminal offense to camp or sleep outdoors in a public space if no other options are available,” explained University of Montana law professor Jordan Gross.
The key here is options available. Cities in the 9th district, including Bozeman, can not ticket someone for camping outside in public places if there are no shelter beds available. Until recently, Bozeman had no shelter beds from April through October.
The City Commission in March gave the Human Resource Development Council a grant to operate the Warming Center for the first time year-round. Jeff Mihelich is the city manager.
“So now we can say to them, ‘Hey, you're breaking curfew,'" said City Manager jeff Mihelich. "'You’re not supposed to erect structures in city parks and there’s a place for you to go. Would you please go over to the shelter and get the services that you need? And more importantly it’s a much safer place for you to rest.'"
Since the encampments were cleared in June, the city says no one has been ticketed. Fines could be up to $500 dollars. HRDC’s Housing Director Brian Guyer says in the days following there was a slight uptick in guests at the 120-bed overnight shelter, but still plenty of beds available.
“While a lot of the people who our outreach team have been speaking with express frustration and disappointment, there’s also an element of they sort of knew this was coming," Guyer said. "They knew that this arrangement was not in perpetuity."
Guyer acknowledges that staying at the warming center isn’t a fit for everyone.
“We’ve taken notice of what cities like Missoula have done with their safe outdoors spaces where they are providing actual tent camping sites for people who are experiencing homelessness who would prefer to not be in a congregate setting,” he said.
Mihelich says Bozeman does not currently own public campgrounds, but the city is in early conversations with private campground owners about options for people experiencing homelessness. He also points to a program that subsidizes campground costs.
As the city considers its options, $1.2 million has been budgeted in the community housing fund for fiscal year 2023.
“We’re investing heavily in affordable housing and we think that helps everybody including people that are experiencing homelessness,” Mihelich said.
HRDC estimates there are 150 homeless individuals in Bozeman, including those staying at the Warming Center.
As the housing crisis in Bozeman continues to displace people from their homes, the pressure for local leaders to put forward solutions isn’t going away any time soon.