Bitter Cold, Homeless Camps And An Ugly Ass Dog Sculpture

by William Skink

The thermostat in our neck of the woods in Missoula County read -14. Throughout this late winter blast of cold and snow I’ve been thinking about those who continue to sleep outside in places like the Reserve Street camps. I think about that reality, but can’t really imagine living it.

Last week there was a pretty interesting article from a homeless man who is living that reality. Here is his method for staying warm in Montana’s frigid winter:

Lean-to’s and tarps are common in the camp he’s in. Even on the coldest night you won’t see a campfire.

“It’ll attract the cops,” said Burns. “So you get a Folgers can, a metal can, and put a roll of toilet paper in there and a whole bottle of isopropyl alcohol. It burns real faint blue but super hot so, yeah, you can keep yourself warm.

“Then you warm some rocks around you like the river rocks, the big ones, and after your fire goes out you put some rocks in your sleeping bag. At the foot. Don’t put them up any higher. It does pretty good for heat.”

This first-hand perspective of lived experience doesn’t usually make it to the pages of local media, so I say a begrudging kudos to the Missoulian for running this piece. I also appreciate that the man was willing to tell his story and share what he’s seeing, and some of what he is seeing is very concerning, like the prevalence of “young ladies” on the homeless scene:

“I would much rather, I think, sleep outside than deal with that,” he said. “It’s not the staff as much as it is the folks that are there. It’s cutthroat and there’s opportunistic folks all around. I couldn’t set my pack down to save my life right now.”

Night camps aren’t warm places in any sense of the word.

“It’s almost cliquish,” Burns said. “If you’re a drinker you hang out with your drinkers. There’s a bunch of dope fiends. They’re over there and they’ve got no gear, they’re just out there getting high and trying to get out of there.”

Burns said it’s surprising how many “young ladies” are in camp, some appearing to be as young as 17.

“There’s quite a few of them that are, like, runaways (who) ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s incredible,” he said.

He keeps a low profile in camp.

“I just try to find my little spot and duck out, which has been all right,” Burns said.

Because not everyone is as resourceful as Rickey Burns, Missoula leaders and local non-profits have continued the scramble to provide warm, safe spaces for those without stable housing. After the Salvation Army raised $50,000 to open a warming center, the bitter cold snaps we’ve been experiencing exposed time gaps between when other places closed and the Salvation Army opened its warming center at 10pm.

The City’s solution was to coordinate a convoluted 2 week solution using the Mountain Line transfer center to keep people warm and a combination of Mountain Line and ASUM busses to transport people to the Salvation Army. Law enforcement was used for security and volunteers staffed the center and transportation efforts.

The persistence of extreme winter conditions made another solution needed after the 2 weeks quickly came and went. A diverse coalition of advocacy groups have been keeping the pressure on city leaders by showing up to City Council and demanding more resources be deployed.

The city acquiesced and threw $8,000 at the Poverello Center to bridge the gap, so now the Pov is temporarily warming those under the influence, going over their limit of people who can be served and possibly compromising the sobriety of other clients in order to do what the city only planned on doing for a measly 2 weeks.

While this was all happening, Missoula taxpayers also got news that the cultural experts of our fair city determined they couldn’t get quality public art for just $12,500, so they asked MRA for TIF money to purchase an incredibly ugly abstract dog sculpture that will be pissed on by thousands of canine’s, all for the cool price of $25,000 dollars. Seriously. From the link:

Missoula has a long-standing Percent for Public Art ordinance, which mandates that on eligible city capital projects, 1.5 percent of the construction costs must be set aside for public art. The capital projects include construction or remodeling of any public or city building, structure or park.

The Montana Rail Link Park falls under that designation, and its $1.7 million budget included $19,914 to be set aside for public art in two locations, according to Annette Marchesseault with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. A portion of that, about $7,400, needed to be set aside for maintenance, leaving roughly $12,500 for the art.

One of the twists here is the entire park construction budget came from Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, funds in urban renewal districts. These districts are formed when an area officially is deemed “blighted.” At that point, the tax base of the district is recorded and any increase in tax revenues are put into the TIF fund, and can only be used within the district to spiff up the area so more development will be drawn to it. Eventually, those upgrades end the “blighted” designation, and after a set period of time, the district is dissolved and all the tax dollars then go into the city’s general fund.

In this case, the TIF money designated through the Percent for Public Art ordinance wasn’t enough scratch to pay for Scratch. So the Montana Redevelopment Agency, which administers the TIF dollars, put up another $12,500 in TIF funds to cover the rest of the cost.

“They (the art committee) felt that for $12,500 it would be difficult to solicit any art of any importance,” Marchesseault said. “So they asked the MRA board for an additional $12,500.”

The MRA board approved the funding last July.

LeBlanc said the committee believed that $25,000 was a fair price for the artist, who not only has to purchase the materials, but also create and install the work.

Missoula fucking Montana, man. Don’t ever change.

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About William Skink

I'm a poet and political cynic living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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