Mitchell McCullough moved into the authorized camping site on Clark Fork Lane in April.
When a spot opened up in the campground this spring, he jumped at an opportunity for security. But due to recent changes to campers, McCullough is considering going back to sleeping rough.
“I have to go,” he said Wednesday morning.
Disgruntled campers like McCullough begin to leave the camper as new rules make life difficult for campers occupying the 40 designated pitches.
“There won’t be 10 people left here,” McCullough predicted.
Campers like McCullough are upset by bans on covering their tents and a requirement that campers keep their belongings inside the four fence posts at their sites.
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Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications director, said the restrictions were put in place for safety reasons. Structures being built on the site pose fire and construction hazards, she said, and walkways cluttered with personal belongings prevent access by emergency services personnel.
“It’s really just a place where people can pitch tents,” Merriam said, pointing to the low-barrier status of the licensed campsite.
But the covers provide shade, McCullough argued, and the four poles at each site limit campers to a claustrophobic living space.
“I don’t understand why you can’t have something above your tent,” said McCullough, who uses a large blue awning to cover his site.
There is no natural shade on the 40 sites behind the Super Walmart.
“You cook there,” said Tully Sanem, a camper who erected an elaborate structure with tarps and netting to cover his site.
Sanem is another camper who is considering leaving the permitted campsite due to the restrictions. He said he understands the rule against structures being over 10 feet tall, but he still wants to be able to shade his spot.
“A lot of people don’t know what they’re going to do,” Sanem said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Sanem was also frustrated with the regulation ordering campers to group their sites together inside their four assigned fence posts. At his site, poles allow Sanem to operate in a 10ft by 15ft space, but some sites are as small as 8ft by 12ft.
“How can you live within 10 by 15 feet?” Sanem asked. “I mean, it’s like you’re going to jail.”
For McCullough, the fence post restriction was the last straw that drove him from the permitted campsite.
“I can’t live in a small 8 by 12 area,” he said.
McCullough feels he will be more comfortable living outside of the authorized campsite. Although he said he had a plan, he acknowledged that living homeless in Missoula was difficult.
The ever-changing nature of the rules at the site provided another factor in McCullough’s decision to leave.
McCullough, Sanem and other campers have expressed frustration with the lack of transparency and consistency from site management.
Initially, they said, no restrictions were placed on the structures. Next, campers were told that they could not use pallets to construct permanent buildings as these posed a fire hazard. After dismantling the permanent structures and using covers to provide shade, they were then told to remove the tarps and awnings over their sites.
“There are no rules to follow until we do it and break the rules,” McCullough said.
Communications should improve now that a vacant site coordinator position has been filled. The three new site coordinators will start in mid-August, according to Merriam.
But lingering issues continue to plague the licensed campsite.
The campground lacks running water and electricity, and campers without vehicles rely on donations from community members to access enough water to withstand the increasing heat.
The future of the site as a whole is currently in jeopardy, as the program was originally created using one-time funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The city and county are both considering a new mill tax to fund projects established with ARPA funds.
Despite the challenges of the licensed campsite, it has successfully served some members of Missoula’s homeless population.
Former resident Dawna Kluesner lived for a year and a half on the Kim Williams Trail before migrating to the licensed campsite. On April 20, she moved into an apartment downtown, where she can look out the window at her old camp by the river.
Kluesner said living for a few weeks at the licensed camping site played an important role in helping him establish the stability needed to secure an apartment.
She called the site “one big family”, but said she didn’t miss living there.
“There are a lot of really good people here,” she said. “The system just doesn’t work enough.”