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Bozeman businesses sue city over status of urban encampments

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A Gavel rests on a sound block.

Six businesses are suing the city, alleging that Bozeman is not enforcing existing laws in homeless camps around the city.

The lawsuit says federal court rulings that allow people to sleep in public right of ways if there is no shelter space available do not preclude the city from enforcing laws concerning health and safety. The lawsuit alleges that loitering, public inebriation, obstructing the public right of way and other criminal activity is occuring in encampments.

Mike Hope owns the Rocking R Bar. He also owns a commercial building about two blocks from an encampment. The building has apartments and rents to a coffee shop and the Ponderosa Social Club. He worries about losing tenants in the future.

“Each individual in the (lawsuit) probably has a different reason, but the frustration came that we got no response, and when you talk to first responders, police, and fire they all tell you that we have been told hands off, we can’t do anything, we’ve got to leave everybody alone. That’s just not how a community can work, so that’s my frustration,” he said.

Hope suggests the city create a designated area for urban campers to stay that would include bathrooms and other resources.

“We’re willing to work with them on the plan quite honestly if they want to work with us. I think you would find the people that are in the lawsuit are also willing to put some resources, dollar resources to help do it,” he said.

The plaintiffs, which include Kenyon Noble Lumber Company, Donnie Olsson Real Estate, Modulus Corporation, Aspen Land Company, Rapid Carwish and Pitt LLC, are not seeking monetary damages, but are asking for attorney fees. Businesses are also asking that the city move encampments to another location and submit an action plan to address health, safety and security in current camps.

A spokesperson for the city says it will respond to the lawsuit in court filings saying “We always welcome public comments and opportunities to collaborate on issues facing our community.”

The lawsuit comes after the city recently voted to restrict urban camping within 100 feet from businesses and require people move every 30 days, along with keeping their camps clean.

That ordinance will go before the city commission for a second reading on October 24th.

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.