Frustrated campers leaving Missoula Authorized Camping Site


Mitchell McCullough moved into the Authorized Camping Site on Clark Fork Lane in April.  

When a spot opened up in the campground this spring, he jumped at an opportunity for safety and security. But due to recent changes imposed upon the campers, McCullough plans on returning to sleeping on the street.

“I have to leave,” he said Wednesday morning.

Disgruntled campers like McCullough are starting to trickle out of the camping site because new rules make life harder for the campers who occupy the 40 designated spots there.

“There’s not going to be 10 people left here,” McCullough predicted.

Campers like McCullough are upset by prohibitions on coverings over their tents and a requirement stipulating campers keep their belongings inside the four fence posts at their sites.

Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications director, said the restrictions were put into place for safety reasons. The structures being built on site are fire and building hazards, she explained, and walkways cluttered with personal belongings impede access for emergency services personnel.

“This is really just a place for people to pitch tents,” said Merriam, stressing the low-barrier status of the Authorized Camping Site.

But coverings provide shade, McCullough argued, and the four posts at each site limit campers to a claustrophobic living space.  

“I don’t understand why you can’t have something over your tent,” said McCullough, who uses a large blue awning to cover his site.

There is no natural shade over the 40 sites behind the Super Walmart.

“You cook down there,” said Tully Sanem, a camper who erected an elaborate structure with tarps and nets to cover his site.

Sanem is another camper who’s considering leaving the Authorized Camping Site because of the restrictions. He said he understands the rule forbidding structures from exceeding 10 feet tall, but he still wants to be able to shade his spot.

“A lot of people don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Sanem. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Sanem was equally frustrated by the regulation instructing campers to consolidate their sites inside their four allotted fence posts. At his site, the posts allow Sanem to operate in a 10-by-15-foot space, but some sites are as small as 8 feet by 12 feet.

“How can you live within 10 by 15 feet?” Sanem demanded. “I mean, that’s like you’re going into jail.”

For McCullough, the fence post restriction was the last straw that drove him out of the Authorized Camping Site.

“I can’t live in an 8-by-12 little area,” he said.

McCullough feels like he will be more comfortable living outside the Authorized Camping Site. Although he said he has a plan, he acknowledged it’s challenging to live unsheltered in Missoula.

The ever-changing nature of the rules at the site provided another factor in McCullough’s decision to leave.

McCullough, Sanem and other campers expressed frustration at a lack of transparency and consistency on the part of the site’s management.

Initially, they said, there were no restrictions placed on the structures. Then the campers were told they couldn’t use pallets to build permanent buildings because those posed a fire hazard. After they dismantled the permanent structures and used coverings to provide shade, they were then told to take down the tarps and awnings above their sites.

“There are no rules to follow until we do it and break the rules,” said McCullough.

Communications are expected to improve now that a vacancy for the site coordinator position has been filled. The three new site coordinators will start in mid-August, according to Merriam.

But ongoing issues continue to plague the Authorized Camping Site.

The campground lacks running water and electricity, and campers without vehicles have depended on donations from community members to access enough water to withstand the rising heat.

The future of the site as a whole is currently in jeopardy, because the program was originally established using one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds. The city and county are both considering a new mill levy to fund projects established thanks to ARPA funds.

Despite the challenges at the Authorized Camping Site, it has successfully served some members of the Missoula houseless population.

Former resident Dawna Kluesner lived for a year and a half on the Kim Williams Trail before migrating into the Authorized Camping Site. On April 20, she moved into an apartment downtown, where she can look out her window at her old camp spot near the river.

Kluesner said living for a few weeks at the Authorized Camping Site played an important role in helping her establish the stability to secure an apartment.

She referred to the site as “one big family,” but she said she doesn’t miss living there.

“There are a lot of really good people here,” she said. “The system just isn’t working enough.”

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