MISSOULA — Seven armed security officers in tactical vests and face coverings canvassed rows of tents and tarp structures at Missoula’s Authorized Tent Camping Site on Wednesday.
The masked men — all employees of Rogers International security company contracted by the city of Missoula — checked to see if each site was in compliance with the camp’s rules.
Each space, which up to four people can live in, needed to be clean, hold no permanent structures, rise no higher than 10 feet and not exceed a 10-by-15-foot space marked by fence posts.
After making rounds at the tents Wednesday, the company issued violation notices to several sites. A city official said a “handful” of people were forced to leave the site. Other residents received three-day notices to get compliant before they might be kicked out on Saturday.
The authorized campsite is Missoula’s most basic homeless camp, located next to the Mullan Street Walmart. The city owns the property. Funding for the campsite comes from the American Rescue Plan Act and other emergency housing funds given to the city.
Roughly 40 people call the site home, but the number varies day by day, according to Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Community Planning, Development and Innovations Department.
Pehan said the authorized camping site is the first of its kind in Missoula. The need came from the closing of the Johnson Street warming center in April, which housed up to 100 people on any given night.
Other residents used to camp illegally on Broadway Island. Pehan said the rules have changed over time as the city develops its plan for supervising homeless campers.
“We opened the campsite to meet an urgent need that arose,” Pehan said. “We are learning as we go.”
By Thursday, only two security officers were seen on site by the Missoulian. The two wore tactical vests, but also had baseball caps and stayed near the camp’s security trailer.
According to Rogers International’s contract with the city of Missoula, the security guards must wear “casual branded attire with (the) company name clearly visible” when working. The contractors must also conceal-carry any firearms.
City of Missoula officials said they were unaware of the reason behind the change in dress code Wednesday. They are investigating the situation.
The contract, which the city authorized in November 2021, also stipulates that at least one security guard is needed at the campsite at all times. Each security guard is paid a base salary of $30 an hour, according to the contract. The contract total is $670,000.
For most who leave the camp, the only option is to live on the streets of Missoula. City officials said several had already left the camp voluntarily because of the 100-degree heat on Monday. Many of them have now illegally camped on private property nearby.
Tully Sanem, a resident of the camp since April, learned on Wednesday that he had to clear his things and temporarily leave the camp by 8 p.m. that night. Sanem had built a larger space that spilled outside the designated posts and hugged a fence line.
“I can’t fit all my stuff in the space they give us,” Sanem said. “I might be homeless, but I also try to be comfortable where I am.”
Plants, metalwork tools and clothes sat on shelves in the L-shaped space next to his sleeping room. A twine net separated his campsite from the walkway. Flower pots lined the ground beside his compound.
When Sanem first moved in, he said camp authorities were not strict. Residents could build structures in their spots and have awnings to protect from the heat. There is no natural shade in the compound.
Camp authorities told him multiple times to shrink his plot, which extends up to 10 feet outside of his allotted space. Sanem said he would not abide by the rules, arguing that the space he took up was not needed by anyone else.
As he raced to fit everything he owned into his flatbed trailer on Wednesday, he claimed up to 15 of the 40 sites were told to leave that day or might have to exit on Saturday.
Meanwhile, residents of the camping site scrambled to clean up. Some tossed trash into a dumpster two bags at a time. Others tried to piece together their dilapidated sites — with tarps worn down from the weather and leftover debris scattered about.
This week’s scurry started after warnings of a compliance check traveled by word of mouth and pamphlets across the camp. It’s the second time since the camp started in January that each site was individually inspected, according to Winnie Lohaf, a mental health professional who works at the site.
The Missoulian was invited by a resident to observe the inspection, but was asked to leave the site before exit forms were handed out. City of Missoula spokesperson Ginny Merriam said the press is not allowed inside the camp to protect the privacy of the residents.
Pehan explained that the compliance checks are normal, and needed to keep the campsite safe. She said fires from camp stoves could be extremely dangerous, and corridors through the tents need to stay clear in case first responders have to enter.
“If residents can’t fix their camp in three days, they must leave on the same day,” Pehan said, adding via email, “Many people had already received a three-day notice, which expired yesterday. Our compliance team observed that they did not bring their site into compliance, but that they were making progress in doing so.
“Instead of issuing an out (eviction) because they were still in violation, they were given an additional three days to come into compliance,” Pehan said. “Our goal is to always work with residents who are moving in the right direction.”
Most exits from the camp are temporary, Pehan continued. After three days, a person could return to the camp. They must share a space with another person during a 30-day probationary period, according to camp policies described by some residents.
Camp inspections happen daily, Pehan said. She noted that she was unaware of why the Wednesday incident had more security than other checks.
Bucky Smith, who was evicted from the camp Wednesday, said he lived there two months before he was kicked out. He said the reason was his tent was not located in a designated spot.
“They gave us a checklist to go over and I thought I would be OK,” said Smith, who is now staying with a friend. “I just had a tent and it was clean. Then they told me I was staying in an unauthorized area and that I had to leave.”
To make it to his friend’s, Smith had to pack all his belongings in an hour to make the last bus. He filled his backpack and took down his tent before leaving.
Smith said he planned to return after three days to try to get an authorized spot. First he would have to share with another resident for 30 days.
Chris Tubb, who moved into the camp after living on Broadway Island, said he felt like the organizers of the camp have changed the rules since he arrived.
“When we first got here, they said we could make whatever we want,” Tubb said. “Now we can’t make any shade and they are more strict about kicking people out.”
The camp had been unstaffed since June, but as of Monday the city hired three area coordinators to manage the site. Two coordinators declined to comment about the situation to the Missoulian.
Sanem slept in an alley the night he got kicked out of the camp. He’s lived all over the country, but Missoula has been the longest he’s stayed in one place.
He said he put a lot of work into his campsite, which set him back hundreds of dollars as he had to throw some of his possessions away. Sanem said he sees the benefits the camp provides, but argued that the rules make it more difficult for people to secure housing.
In his eyes, he hoped there would be a private landowner who would let some people camp on their lot while they save up money to afford rent. But as he stared over the project of getting his possessions back on his trailer, he said he felt defeated, and — after 22 years — he planned to leave Missoula and find a more affordable place to live.
“Everything I build up here gets destroyed,” Sanem said. “I don’t know what I will do, but ultimately I am going to leave the state.”
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