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Why some cities are operating legal homeless camps even in the dead of winter

A sanctioned and regulated homeless encampment is operating this winter on the outskirts of Missoula, Mont. [Kirk Siegler/NPR]
A sanctioned and regulated homeless encampment is operating this winter on the outskirts of Missoula, Mont.

The homelessness crisis, especially in major West Coast metro areas grabs the headlines: tent cities lining freeways and spreading into busy entertainment districts. But every night an untold number of people are also sleeping outside in smaller inland cities.

"My tent's the second one there," says Frankie Clark, 63, gesturing toward her temporary home on a snowy patch of land in the mountain town of Missoula, Mont.

For the past couple of years, Clark has mostly been sleeping in cars.

"I was lucky I got a car for $100 and I slept in it," she says. "But the winter before, I slept in my son in law's car. So yeah, it's been hard."

Affordable housing in Missoula, pop. 70,000, is scarce. There is less than a 1% rental vacancy. And the median home price crept above half a million dollars in late 2021. Clark lived in her car until it got impounded.

"I was at the end, I didn't know what I was going to do," she says.

Then she heard about Missoula's Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, where she's been living since September.

Local charities, with the help of the county, set it up as an alternative to the illegal and controversial encampments that had been springing up around town. Some people just won't go to shelters, organizers say, capacity or not.(Missoula's only year round shelter has been operating at 50% capacity due to Covid). Others can't use federal hotel vouchers because they don't have IDs or have other issues.

What a regulated, 'sanctioned camp' looks like

Illegal homeless encampments have only been growing since the pandemic and cities across the country have struggled to respond. That some are resorting to setting up legal, sanctioned outdoor camps even in the dead of winter is not without controversy. But in Missoula County, anyway, where a state of emergency has been declared amid an alarming rise in homelessness, officials and social workers see it as something that can be done to help people right now.

Several miles from a collection of illegal encampments along the Clark Fork River, is an open field on private land near some golf courses on the city's southern outskirts. It's off a busy highway. There's no official sign and the camp and its twenty canvas wall tents is easy to miss. The tents are equipped with propane heaters and suspended off the snowy ground on wood planks. There's also a warming shelter and makeshift kitchen and lockers for storage.

On a recent afternoon the temperature hovered at a frigid ten degrees.

"Is this a long term solution? Absolutely not," says site manager Ashley Corbally. "There needed to be something that could be put up quickly, that could be sustainable and temporary."

Local officials helped establish the camp a year ago with the help of federal COVID relief money.

"We know this is just a band-aid to the problem," Corbally says. "But it's something that we can do right now and affect real change in people's lives."

Residents like Frankie Clark say they feel safer here. There's 24 hour security, strict rules and access to social services. Case workers often visit and it's a short walk to the highway where there's a city bus stop. There are also twice weekly shuttles to a nearby church where showers are available.

Clark says she recently found a sales job - like in most cities today, help wanted signs are posted at businesses throughout Missoula.

"You can't work and live in a car, and this place made it so much easier for me to be able to go to sleep at night and get up in the morning and be able to go where I had to go and do the things I had to do," Clark says, crediting camp staff for helping her stay on track and get back on her feet.

Critics say we we just creating 'permanent shanty towns'

Missoula's sanctioned camp was modeled after similar efforts in Las Cruces, New Mexico and Durango, Colorado. At the National Homelessness Law Center, legal director Eric Tars has been watching this nationwide trend with some trepidation.

"We're assuming essentially that we're creating permanent shanty towns here in the wealthiest country in the world and that that's okay," Tars says.

Tars says communities are being forced down this path due to a forty year deficit in affordable housing construction and federal funding for it. He says lawmakers have a tool right in front of them to start chipping away at that: the proposed Build Back Better legislation.

"We need to start by saying that the best place for everyone is fully adequate housing," Tars says. "And legal encampments, while they can be a form of harm reduction, are not fully adequate housing, particularly in a Montana winter but anywhere."

But Missoula officials are seeing some success

In Missoula, where local officials recently launched an "Operation Shelter" program, there are plans to open up more sanctioned homeless encampments this year - some with fewer services than the TSOS but all with bathrooms and security. Community leaders are also working to convert a local motel into transitional housing.

But they insist all of these are only stop-gap measures until more permanent housing developments that are currently under construction come online in 2023.

"We have a homeless shelter that is operating at 50%, we have individuals that don't want to stay in congregate shelters because of one issue or another and they find this is their best opportunity," says Eric Legvold, a director at the United Way of Missoula County.

Since the sanctioned homeless camp opened, Legvold and other organizers estimate that about a third of the 90 or so people living in it have been moved into more stable housing.

On one frigid afternoon last week, 63 year old Frankie Clark herself finally heard some good news.

"I'm sorry, I'm so happy right now," Clark said, choking back tears. "I can move into a one bedroom with a washer and a drier and everything, it's going to be awesome."

Her case worker had just told her a rare apartment was opening up for her. It felt like a small victory.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.