Insisting they have no intention of criminalizing homelessness but rather a duty to protect public health and safety, the Missoula City Council on Monday unanimously amended city code to clarify that RVs cannot be parked in the public right-of-way for use as homes.
“We are establishing a way to deal with a public nuisance, and I expect this ordinance to be applied in that manner,” said Councilman Jordan Hess. “It never has been my intent and never will be my intent to do anything that criminalizes homelessness or poverty.”
“If they are living in an RV, they are one step from probably being homeless,” added Ward 4 Councilman Jon Wilkins. “And you are asking them to move, which they should – they shouldn’t be on the street.”
That said, local government needs to do more to help those who are homeless, said Wilkins. If their home is an RV, he said, they need a place to park that is safe and sanitary.
Ward 6 Councilwoman Marilyn Marler agreed: “It’s complicated, but my goal is not to penalize homelessness.”
Still, Marler said she knows of two cases in her ward where illegal on-street RV parking “seemed like it was becoming dangerous and people were becoming afraid. And we have another similar situation near downtown.”
Alex Strickland, who lives near Little McCormick Park, came to Monday night’s meeting to tell his neighborhood’s story.
“This summer,” he said, “we saw a drastic change in that park – from occasional short-term campers passing through to the arrival of semi-permanent residents ringing the park. There were times when a dozen people were living in the park – some in cars, some in vans, some in buses, many in RVs.”
For the second week, council members also heard from one of the illegal campers – Marcy Hammond – who is angry about the crackdown and a host of other issues she has with Missoula police and local government.
“We are living in an RV,” Hammond said, gesturing to Johnny Ulrigg, who stood in the doorway to council chambers. “Why do you guys think we are lower-class citizens? I think we are better than you.”
Hammond said she is not homeless, but rather “houseless.” And her life in an RV moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in Missoula is “certainly not a camping thing.”
“Why not give houseless people a positive message?” she asked. “Why don’t you help us find a place to park our RV?”
Here are the rules, as established Monday night and described by Development Services director Mike Haynes. Many of the prohibitions were already in place, but needed changes in wording to be enforceable by police and the city attorney.
First what is not prohibited: The revised regulation does not adversely affect visitors parking their RV or travel trailer outside the residence of a friend or relative, and in fact, increases from three days to five the limit on guest campers.
RVs also can be parked and occupied in RV parks and campgrounds in both the city and county.
Prohibited for any length of time is occupying a recreational vehicle on a public street, road, alley, boulevard or median in the city of Missoula.
“Camping in the city right-of-way is not permitted now and that doesn’t change under the revised ordinance,” Haynes explained Monday night.
“The revised ordinance focuses specifically on camping in RVs because that is the problem we have identified,” he said.
Police already enforce the ban on so-called “urban camping,” Haynes said, and 99 percent of the offenders voluntarily comply. The remaining 1 percent, however, present long-term and reoccurring problems for police and neighborhoods.
What about those using city streets to live in other types of motor vehicles? Strickland asked, citing the example of Little McCormick Park.
“I would remind you that camping or sleeping overnight on public property, in general, remains prohibited through a section of Title XII of city code,” Haynes said. That specific language talks about camping and sleeping overnight in parks, the right-of-way, parking lots, sidewalks, under bridges and other public places.
“Your general vagrancy ordinance remains unchanged,” he said.
“The proposed changes are made necessary by a very few individuals who refuse to comply with city laws,” Haynes emphasized. “Those people have produced “an increasing number of complaints by residents and business owners about vehicles being parked in the city right-of-way and used as living quarters.”
Those individuals are creating public health problems with illegal waste disposal on city streets, public safety concerns with their sometimes-aggressive behavior toward neighbors in nearby houses, and traffic safety hazards for passing pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles, according to Haynes.
“I want to emphasize that nothing is intended to be punitive,” he said. “It is simply to be sure that, if and when we go to court, our attorneys can rely on the ordinance as written.”
Violations of the ordinance carry a possible $100 per day fine.