Homes on streets: Missoula officials, cops, RV residents discuss urban camping | Local News

All Tristan Holdsambeck wants is to dispel the stereotype that people who live in RVs on public streets are drug dealers and thieves.

“I blame a lot of that on ‘Breaking Bad,’” he said, referring to the hit AMC show that portrayed RV residents as meth kingpins and murderers. “It didn’t help the cause, that’s for sure.”

Holdsambeck, 21, was born and raised in Missoula and has lived in his aging motor home just off Reserve Street for over a year and a half. He has a full-time job as a mechanic in training and took a half hour of his lunch break to talk about what it’s like to live on the street.

Street Camping 1

Tristan Holdsambeck has been living in his motor home parked on a Missoula street for over a year and a half. He has a full-time job, but said the motor home seems like his best option right now given the cost of housing in Missoula.

Housing prices have escalated at a far greater rate than wages in Missoula in recent years, and he said he just decided he’d rather take home most of his paycheck than send over half of it to an apartment landlord. Getting hassled because of people’s myths about his lifestyle is the worst part.

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“I’ve had another RV and my dad’s had like two different ones in the past, and we tried parking in other spots around town,” he said. “It seems like just about everywhere, you’d only be there like a weekend or sometimes the first day we were parked there but the cops would come by. And apparently somebody had called in about two dudes in an RV, suspicious activity.”

Every time, he’d open up his doors and show the cops he wasn’t hiding stolen goods or manufacturing drugs.

“I’m like, just because there’s two dudes parked in an RV doesn’t mean something shady is going on,” he said, laughing.

Holdsambeck said he’s looked at renting an apartment, but he saw that prices surged in recent years as not enough units were available.

“Over the last year, I was hoping rent prices were gonna drop down but they didn’t at all,” he said. “And then in the like, last four or five months they just skyrocketed. I’m currently looking for some new housing. Missoula is a great place to retire, but if you’re searching for housing it seems like they’re trying to upgrade in a hurry.”

So a camper seemed like the best option for him right now, and other than getting the cops called on him for no reason, it’s suited him. His tires bear the chalk marks of city officials who have marked his rig for towing, but he’s simply moved it a few feet several times.

Street Camping 2

Recreational vehicles being lived in are parked on a street on the outskirts of Missoula last week. The issue creates a complex problem for the city, county and law enforcement.

Urban camping

As technically illegal urban RVs and tents pop up in neighborhoods and public areas in and around Missoula, city officials are reminding the public that cops aren’t going to haul people away for living on the streets. In fact, it would be a violation of federal law to criminally punish homeless people for sleeping outside on public property if there are no available alternatives.

“We’re mindful of the 9th Circuit Court ruling that told municipalities in the whole Ninth Circuit district we’re not to criminalize homelessness,” explained city communications manager Ginny Merriam. “So, writing tickets for camping or throwing people in jail for camping is not a best practice and that is not something that we are doing.

“But we’re attempting to balance taking care of people as best we can with respecting their rights and respecting public safety as well.”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the 9th Circuit’s decision as well.

Merriam gave a presentation to the Mayor’s downtown advisory council on Tuesday. She outlined all the different options available to people without homes in Missoula, including the 40-tent Authorized Camping Site, the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, the Poverello Center homeless shelter and other nonprofit facilities.

“I wanted you to know all that information so that the next person who says to you, ‘It doesn’t look to me like the city’s doing anything about people who are living unsheltered,’ you will be able to say ‘no, in fact, there are several places people can go,'” she said.

However, with the Johnson Street Emergency Winter Shelter closing on April 18, Merriam knows that the hundred or so people who stay there every night will simply not all find a bed.

“We all wish a magical thing would happen and we would have plentiful affordable housing for everybody,” Merriam said. “That’s probably not going to happen by April 19. But the city and the county continue to problem-solve and think through services that we need, in addition to additional housing, that will help people be more successful in being housed and staying housed.”

Police interactions

Jay Gillhouse, a Missoula police officer who patrols the downtown Business Improvement District, spoke about the department’s interactions with people who are unhoused on public property.

“There are limitations of law enforcement and what we can do,” he said. “When a problem comes up, as a police department we are trying to divert this to other community resources and get social work involved and build these bridges and give a designated area where they’re going to have the least amount of community impact.”

However, he said, the department has complex interactions with people who live in RVs on public streets.

“Where the gap is, is with recreational vehicles and when all else fails and we just don’t have anybody,” he explained. “There are a number of individual circumstances with RVs and people who are service-resistant and they will not move.

“And we have a stalemate between a community and an individual experiencing homelessness and we are lacking the amount of resources within this community to be able to appropriately address that.”

In an interview with Newstalk KGVO radio station in Missoula last week, Missoula police patrol captain Jake Rosling said that the city has an action plan to deal with camps that inevitably pop up in the city. Police will try to assist those who are camping in vehicles or in campers to pull off the public-right-of-way or get them to different options.

“Most of the laws that people are actually violating by camping in or on city property or camping in the right of way are city ordinance violations that are not arrestable,” Rosling said. “I want to be clear that we don’t want to arrest anybody for this stuff. And realistically, we can’t.”

He said patrol officers try to be compassionate and point people to resources.

Gillhouse noted that some of the city’s ordinances that prohibit camping are no longer enforceable.

“We’re lacking, I think, some of the laws in the city and we’re also lacking some resources within the community,” he said. “And we are lacking the amount of resources within this community to be able to appropriately address that.”

He said the city needs to keep having conversations about the issue.

“Because there’s definitely a gap in what we can do. And as law enforcement we’re stuck, I’m stuck, in the middle being the enforcement. … I also want to help on the social work end, too.”

County commissioner Juanita Vero asked Gillhouse if he had a magic wand, what law would help him.

“I believe our city ordinances are older than the Supreme Court ruling that is kind of guiding us at this point,” Gillhouse explained. “Our city ordinances that address the act of camping in the city and stuff like that were written before that guidance of those laws.

“So I believe the city ordinances do need to be at least looked at and reviewed because I’m not really sure of the constitutionality of them at this point, quite frankly, and that’s the one thing that we do have to fall back on.”

Theresa Williams, the county’s Crisis Intervention Team program manager, said Gillhouse’s hands are often figuratively tied.

“Jay gets stuck in a position of you know, I am law enforcement and we do have city ordinances, but at the same time he understands we can’t just move the problem literally around the block,” she said. “And I also think he understands, and a lot of law enforcement and community members (understand), citing (people) just creates more barriers to help these people.

“They already have all these barriers in the system. Citing just adds another element of even feeling more overwhelmed, more stuck and it takes even longer for people to get help.”

Gillhouse said that the city has provided a lot of legal alternatives for people in tents, but RVs are in a gray area.

“We have not addressed, at least to the point where we can really use anything, RVs,” he said. “People that have RVs, that is their home and they don’t want to give that up.”

He said that since the Supreme Court ruling, the most the police can do is give people a citation for illegal camping within city limits.

“Then we come to the constitutionality of that,” he said. “How do we remove an RV from the street? We ask them to move around. A lot of times we try to just keep them on the move to minimize the impact on one neighborhood. We can’t force them out. That’s where I’m looking for people to brainstorm what possibilities do we have.”

Street Camping 3

Tristan Holdsambeck stands outside his motor home last week in Missoula. He’d like to dispel the stereotype that people living in RVs on the street are drug dealers or thieves.

Future options

During a city council meeting this week, council member Daniel Carlino asked the city’s housing initiatives specialist, Emily Armstrong, whether there is any effort to create a safe space for people to park cars and RVs that they’re living in.

“Actually, I’ve been doing some research on safe parking programs across the country recently to explore how other places are doing it,” Armstrong responded. “Because I think, I mean, that’s a need we’ve been hearing for a while, particularly for RVs and trailers.”

Her research shows that many safe parking programs in other communities might not translate to the main challenges in Missoula.

“But that is something we’re looking into,” she said. “There’s no set plan on developing it yet, but it’s something we’re starting to dig into to understand a little bit more and get a picture for what that looks like and how it’s been successful in other communities.”

She said some programs in California and other areas in the country have gone well.

“What I’m finding is typically, it’s not necessarily one designated area, one parking lot or something,” she said. “It’s typically like a business or a church or something will donate like three parking spots in their lot overnight. They can be used for safe parking every night and there’s like a check-in process and an approval process and so it’s kind of scattered like that.”

She said making those places secure and safe is a critical element.

“It’s definitely a challenge that I think we’ve been discussing city, county and community-wide for a few years,” Armstrong concluded.

Dispelling myths

Holdsambeck, the RV resident in Missoula, said he’s had problems with people stealing his property. Neighboring businesses thought that some thefts on their property were related to him, so they called the cops, assuming the guy in the RV must be responsible. He takes it all in stride.

“Granted, there’s some people that stay in trailers and for reasons such that are a little bit more on the shady side,” he said. “It makes (RV residents) look bad to everybody else just because of the people that are abusing it.”

Jill Bonny, the executive director of the Poverello Homeless shelter, told the mayor’s downtown advisory committee last week that unsheltered community members are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators. Studies in the past have found the same thing.

“There’s an ongoing need for low barrier shelter capacity in our community and we just need to keep talking about it,” she said.

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