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Clearing camp

Cleaning up under Reserve Street proves no easy job

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Emotions are mixed below the Reserve Street bridge. Volunteers clad in work gloves wander through the fallen leaves bagging discarded cans, wrappers, cigarette butts and errant strips of cardboard. A few others busy themselves taking down tents and folding up blue tarps. Travis Mateer, homeless outreach coordinator for the Poverello Center, gathers up a cache of unopened food. Oct. 22 marked the third annual cleanup of the homeless camps along the Clark Fork in western Missoula. And while the effort is intended to improve health and safety and deter settlement by the city's homeless population, it's impossible to ignore that the job requires dismantling numerous makeshift shelters.

Driving that point home, one volunteer approaches Mateer with a recovered first aid kit complete with prescription pill bottles. Mateer recognizes the name, sets aside the kit and vows to return it to its owner. "He'll be really happy to get this back," Mateer says.

The Pov conducted an intense outreach campaign weeks ahead of the cleanup, warning camp denizens of the exact date and nature of the event so they could vacate the area and remove any valuables. Still, items like a basketball, tents and an elaborate tarp-and-log structure held together with dozens of screws and five-inch lengths of rebar are still present. Several stone fire pits remain warm and smoking.

"This is not necessarily a good-feeling thing to be doing, taking away people's personal things," Mateer says. "It can be tough on the volunteers, like the girl who had some trouble today because she wasn't sure if what she was picking up was an active camp."

The Missoula City-County Health Department took its first run at cleaning up the swath of Montana Department of Transportation-owned property below Reserve Street back in 2011, hiring a contractor to do the work. Six months later a crew of volunteers returned to the site, hauling out 5 tons of trash. The shared goals behind the effort have attracted a diverse set of partners including the Pov, the Clark Fork Coalition and the Western Montana Trail Riders Association, who provided two volunteers and a pair of ATVs this month. Travis Ross, an environmental health specialist with the county's water quality district, says the final tally of trash removed during the latest cleanup was 3.17 tons, or 30 cubic yards.

Environmental Health Specialist Travis Ross, right, and a gathering of volunteers bag trash from a pile consolidated by residents of homeless camps below the Reserve Street bridge during a recent cleanup. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Environmental Health Specialist Travis Ross, right, and a gathering of volunteers bag trash from a pile consolidated by residents of homeless camps below the Reserve Street bridge during a recent cleanup.

"My sense is that the volume is going down, at least the concentration over time," Ross adds. "It's still a huge volume of trash, don't get me wrong. But it's just not accumulating at the rate that it was."

Removing all that waste isn't just a matter of public health and safety. Much of the area lies within the Clark Fork's floodplain, creating a scenario where high water events could wash trash downstream. Ross says he's received numerous calls in years past about propane bottles and grocery bags floating into irrigation ditches or getting hung up in logjams. According to volunteer coordinator Katie Racette, one of the Clark Fork Coalition's driving interests in helping with the effort is to ensure that potential pollutants are removed well before spring runoff. Several of the recent cleanup volunteers were students recruited from the University of Montana's environmental studies program.

"All those camps that we were cleaning up were either in dry channels ... or are on the floodplain," Racette says. "When the spring runoff comes along, it would have washed out everything."

The situation below Reserve Street has improved since the collaborative cleanup days began, and the homeless community is now buying into the idea. Individuals living in these camps have attempted to consolidate their trash in a single spot to ease collection. Volunteers managed to bag most of that site in less than an hour before fanning out to tackle the more time-consuming task of combing the floodplain floor for scattered garbage.

Those involved in the cleanup agree the continued presence of these camps—and the need for the event—is indicative of a far greater problem. Mateer refers to "major gaps in the system" that force people onto the margins of society. Some suffer from chemical dependency or mental illness, others may be unaware of local services. While pulling apart a small structure mere feet from the Clark Fork, Ross says the cleanup is a small step in the right direction. "If we just treat this place like a No Man's Land, we'll never move closer to a solution."

One of the biggest questions on the minds of those clearing out the camps is how quickly the folks living here will be back. Mateer offers one possible answer, based on his weekly visits to the area.

"Some of them, probably tomorrow," he says.

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