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Bozeman considers regulations for urban camping

RVs and cars parked along Rawhide Ridge Road near the 19th avenue commercial corridor in Bozeman in July of 2022.
RVs and cars parked along Rawhide Ridge Road near the 19th avenue commercial corridor in Bozeman in July of 2022.

As urban camping continues to rise in Bozeman, city officials will consider regulations for people staying in RVs and tents in public right of ways.

A nonprofit that works with unhoused people says while some parts of the ordinance may be beneficial for safety reasons, having people move every five days would put strain on their limited time and resources.

According to city documents, approximately 200 RVs, campers, vans and other vehicles park on public right of ways, with people residing in them or using the vehicles for storage.

A proposed city ordinance would regulate the time, manner and place that urban camping is allowed in city limits.

The ordinance would also restrict urban campers from staying adjacent to or across from homes, parks, schools, and daycares, as well as staying within 100 feet from a public entrance of a business or nonprofit.

According to assistant City Manager Kira Peters the proposed ordinance would require a camp facility to move to a different street after five days.

“We feel if there is a time regulation, people really will have to make sure their vehicles number one can still move in case we need to as a city get by to plow, and number two to really avoid and discourage collecting of things and also trash and debris that might collect around a vehicle that say has been there for 4-5 months,” she said.

Brian Guyer, the Housing Director for the nonprofit Human Resources Development Council, says the ordinance could help the city keep encampments clean and safe, as well as distanced from heavily trafficked areas, but the 5 day timeline is too short. This is partly due to the yearlong wait list for a popular rental voucher program.

“That means somebody that's doing everything right is still looking at about a year of urban camping… that means that throughout the course of that year, with the five day limit, they’re going to be moving around 77 times throughout that year, and that’s a lot,” he said.

Guyer says paying for gas in order to move will put stress on those with limited resources and distract them from spending time securing a more stable living situation.

“With a 14 day or longer limit the city would still be able to keep roads clean, keep people out of big thoroughfares, and keep the rubbish down,” he said.

Guyer suggests that the city consider a homelessness and sheltering state of emergency like the one Missoula officials enacted earlier this summer after they saw a surge in urban camping. The declaration allows Missoula to levy up to 2 mills for housing resources and shelter.

Peters says because there are more urban campers than there is shelter space available, the city needs a tool to keep public right of ways clean and safe.

“We do not think that this ordinance will pass and all of a sudden there won’t be any campers out there on the streets; that isn’t going to happen. What we are hoping is that we’ll be able to enforce and regulate what is happening when someone does need to camp in a public right of way,” she said.

People in violation of the proposed ordinance would be subject to a $100 fine for each day the infraction occurs.

The ordinance was initially scheduled for consideration earlier this month, but commissioners voted to postpone it following a 4 hour workshop on short term rentals. It will go before the commission at their meeting on September 19th.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.