On Friday’s Talk Back show, guests on the monthly ‘City Talk’ segment included Erin Pehan, Director of Housing and Community Development along with City of Missoula Communications Director Ginny Merriam.

One of the topics brought up by the many callers to the show on Friday was the homeless camp that exists in the area around and under the Reserve Street Bridge and the dangers of disease and poor sanitation that exist in the camp.

One caller asked specifically if the city is turning a blind eye to the area.

Merriam responded first by stating that the area is under several distinct jurisdictions including Missoula County, the State of Montana and even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We do not turn a blind eye to it,” said Merriam. “However, it is extremely labor intensive. At least once a year, sometimes twice, the city participates with a number of our city employees with the county and other jurisdictions and I believe, even the Forest Service in cleaning out that camp. We give people notice that we’re coming and that we’ll be dismantling structures and hauling away trash and they need to depart from here with your belongings.”

Merriam said once the job is done the homeless simply return.

“The problem is that they come back,” she said. “Erin can speak better to that population as to why somebody would want to live there in that dangerous situation, and I don’t know if ‘want’ is even the right word, but it’s something we deal with perennially and it takes a great deal of resources. Obviously, it can’t be done once a week or even more than just a couple of times a year.”

Pehan attempted to explain the reason why some would seek the difficult environment near the Reserve Street Bridge.

“We know a lot of people can’t access our shelter system primarily due to health issues or addiction,” said Pehan. “We have a lot of veterans in our community who are suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder due to combat. We also have a lot of folks suffering from PTSD due to childhood trauma and childhood abuse. It’s nearly impossible for those individuals to be in a crowded room with 30 or 40 other people in a shelter, so they choose to take their chances in the extreme weather.”

Pehan also said her agency does not turn a ‘blind eye’ to the problem.

“We definitely don’t turn a blind eye,” she said. “We have amazing partners in the service community like the Poverello Center, Open Aid Alliance, the Western Montana Mental Health Center who go down there sometimes on a daily basis checking in with those folks and building relationships and starting the process of helping them to visualize a different and a better life with the goal of bringing those folks into housing.”

During last spring's flooding, sheriff's office personnel rescued several homeless persons camped near the Reserve Street, but they returned almost immediately.

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