Like many cities across the United States, Missoula has been grappling with how to accommodate people who are forced to sleep outside when housing is out of reach. Unfortunately, the Missoula City Council is ignoring expert recommendations and significant community input related to Missoula’s “urban camping” policies; instead some City Council members are pushing ahead with a harmful and restrictive urban camping ordinance that would demonstrably make life harder and more dangerous for Missoula’s unhoused residents.

For months, the ACLU of Montana has been part of an urban camping working group in Missoula, alongside dozens of other organizations, impacted community members and passionate advocates. This working group repeatedly made recommendations to the City Council about the importance of a comprehensive and coordinated approach to supporting Missoula’s unhoused community. Our recommendations emphasized the importance of basic services–including trash collection, sharps containers, and access to bathrooms–and prioritized support for unhoused community members over punishment. These three services, which support survival, were among the most discussed within the working group and the collective community would benefit from those services being provided. We also called for Missoula to recognize and advise people who are unhoused where they can go prior to any regulatory action. 

For the most part, the City Council seems to have ignored those recommendations and moved forward with a very different plan.

Substantively, this plan is untenable. It restricts camping across the vast majority of Missoula, pushing unhoused community members away from safety, resources, and community. Exacerbating the problem, the ordinance lays out a confusing maze of buffer zones where camping is prohibited, but fails to acknowledge where camping is allowed.  The City Council stated that the system for enforcement would be complaint based. This will further pit housed and unhoused neighbors against each other and creates an arbitrary enforcement scheme. Similarly, it is unrealistic and cruel to require individuals to “dismantle…and remove all personal property” between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM, opening another avenue for removing unhoused individuals and causing destabilization of their lives. This will prove impossible for many community members.

Procedurally, the City Council’s timeline is also highly questionable.  Why discard the time and effort of the working group? Why not follow through on working towards consensus? Why ignore the majority of public comment indicating that this is not what Missoula residents want? Why quickly push through a resolution and subsequent ordinance without listening to Missoulians and those most impacted by the resolution and ordinance? Why spend significant resources creating an ordinance, and subsequently enforcing it when there are no maps created by the City showing where camping is and isn’t allowed?

There was significant discussion by council members about summer coming, and housed children having camps and soccer practices. What about children who are unhoused? They deserve safety and to enjoy their lives in community too. All children do. 

You can read the working group’s minority report at bottom; it expands on these issues and goes into detail about short and long term outcomes, proposed steps, and a comprehensive strategy to move forward.

City Council will have a final vote on the ordinance in a public hearing on Monday, June 24, 2024 at 6:00 p.m. Please email and call the City Council, and if possible show up tonight for public comment. Community members are also able to give public comments on Teams via the City’s website

Following the vote, continue to put pressure on Missoula to do the right thing and treat our unhoused neighbors with dignity and respect. Make sure our elected officials know that they work for all of us, not just those that are housed. Contact City Council members to tell them that we want to see our unhoused neighbors safe and in community and that focusing on regulating survival behavior is ineffective and expensive across the country.