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Cities must help navigate a path out of homelessness, not make it worse

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Cities must help navigate a path out of homelessness, not make it worse

Jun 22, 2024 | 6:44 am ET
By Daniel Carlino
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Cities must help navigate a path out of homelessness, not make it worse
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Several people living in tent and cars in Missoula represent several hundred dealing with being unhoused. State officials call it a crisis (Photo by Aislin Tweedy of the Daily Montanan).

As the cost of rent and housing have dramatically risen in our community, more and more Missoulians risk losing their homes. A retired middle school teacher shared her story at city council this past week about what it’s like to be affected by poverty and to be pushed into homelessness. Because of her medical conditions, she can no longer access the shelters that we have in our community, leaving her with no other option but to sleep outside. Many of our unhoused neighbors like her have shown courage by sharing their stories at city council, while going through the struggle of trying to find affordable housing.

We recently had the longest Missoula City Council meeting ever, lasting until almost 4 a.m., when discussing the new policy around people living in their tents or vehicles. The city ordinance in front of us will direct the police and city staff to forcibly remove people who are survival camping or living in their vehicles without providing any alternative places for them to go– spending our tax dollars and resources moving people in circles. 

If people can’t move their tent or vehicle in time when asked, this ordinance directs the police or city staff to force people to move, give them fines, and have their vehicles towed. 

Criminalizing homelessness deepens social inequities, destabilizes people and makes the path out of homelessness further out of reach. Moreover, these measures of penalization are expensive for governments, costing the city millions of dollars per year.

Everyone agrees this ordinance isn’t a real fix; we’ll just be wasting valuable city staff time and resources on moving people along from one place to another. It will have the opposite effect that they’re hoping for. It will make homelessness even more visible as people seek shelter during the day in public spaces and it will cause them to take several steps back from any progress they have made in obtaining housing.

This is not a solution. What we really need is housing built for low-income people, something that the free market will never do. In the meantime, attempting to use government force to hide homelessness is an expensive, inhumane, lazy, deadly and ultimately ineffectual way to address the issue.  

We must provide pathways out of homelessness, not further destabilize the most vulnerable people in our community. Providing a safe place to park or camp in peace gives people the stability to be able to go to work, access services, and ultimately be able to get into a stable home faster. 

Survival activities such as camping, sleeping or living in a vehicle are often unavoidable for people experiencing homelessness. We must provide safe places where people without access to shelter can go. 

I hope we will consider what the service providers from the “Mayor’s Urban Camping Working Group” suggested and adopt policies that prioritize the safety and dignity of all community members, especially our most vulnerable. They spelled out what we should do to help with managing camping: Provide basic resources such as specific places for people to be able to stay and camp and places where people can live in their vehicles safely with access to resources such as bathrooms, trash collection and storage lockers. Then, the city can try to use creative methods of enforcement to prevent people from camping in unwanted areas such as community service or incentives, opposed to fines and jail. 

We must have the empathy, political will and common sense to fund services instead of criminalizing homelessness. Finding more permanent solutions would help create a safer, more appealing community for everyone. 

Carlino is a city councilman in Missoula, Montana. 

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