Missoula’s Concentration Camp: Shitting into the Lungs of the Homeless

The human sense of smell is predicated upon the detection of tiny particles diffusing from their source into the air we breathe, which we experience as aromas and fragrances. So whether you’re detecting bananas or dog doo with your olfactory nerve, what you’re actually sensing is the presence of tiny bits of physical banana (or dog doo) floating into your nose. Keep this fact in mind because we’ll be returning to it presently.

The homelessness catastrophe unfolding in Missoula’s liberal utopia continues plummeting to previously unimaginable depths. As many locals are already aware, our beloved Mayor John Engen leveraged this crisis to score political points in 2012 with his fabulous 10-Year-Plan-To-End-Homelessness. In his 2015 TEDx talk at the University of Montana, Engen declared that, “We in Missoula, Montana are going to end homelessness because we believe that everyone has a right to a safe, decent place to live.”

Ten years into the 10-Year-Plan and things appear to have grown worse. Much worse. As droves of locals are pushed into homelessness by skyrocketing property taxes and increased rents, some decide to live in their cars while others move away. Many more choose suicide. And last summer we witnessed a previously unimaginable extreme of this war waged on working people when literally thousands of Missoula locals were pushed out of their housing simply because giant property management companies realized what a gold mine they all were sitting on. 

The demand for housing in Missoula has exploded beyond available supply to the point that rents doubled and tripled across the board in the summer of 2021. With few protections in place for renters, our homeless population ballooned, and our leaders continue to shrug it off as simply “the market’s will.” We ought to note that Mayor John Engen’s NeoLiberal policies aren’t helping any of this, but his administration continues adding insult to injury by affixing feeble Band-Aids to mortal wounds.

It’s become difficult to keep up with Missoula’s dizzying array of homeless shelters, transitional housing, congregate shelters and outdoor spaces. These include the Poverello Center (Montana’s largest homeless shelter), YWCA Meadowlark, Valor House, Clark Fork Inn Transitional Shelter, Sleepy Inn Congregate Shelter, Johnson Street Shelter (aka the “Snake Pit”) and the Transitional Safe Outdoor Space (TSOS) on South Brooks. There is also the soon-to-be completed Trinity Project, seated strategically near Missoula’s Pre-Release center and Detention Facility to function as another stone in the halfway-house-brick-road for those in need of so-called “supportive housing”. 

Said shelters are increasingly coming under the watchful eye of Rogers International, a shady private security firm hired by the City of Missoula with federal COVID money through Reaching Home under a $670,000 contract. Reaching Home is the organization tasked with enacting Mayor Engen’s failed 10-Year-Plan-To-End-Homelessness by establishing “a strong Coordinated Entry System” that, they say, “makes homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring for people in our community.” It seems obvious to anyone who lives here that these plans have utterly failed, because homelessness is anything but rare, brief or non-recurring in Missoula. And instead of asking why the Garden City now has such a burgeoning homeless population, the companies financing our political leaders have found ways to profit handsomely from the disaster by exacerbating and prolonging its central causes. Good-olde Disaster Capitalism at work.

But Missoula’s leaders have proven incapable of admitting fault or even apologizing for mistakes, exemplified most recently by their conceited reaction to the wave of legitimate criticism regarding the Rogers contract. Proving once again that Missoula’s entrenched bureaucracy will do almost anything to defend the profits of its donors, Emily Armstrong of Reaching Home was caught in a lie last week when she was quoted in the Missoulian as saying that schools and neighbors explicitly asked for armed mercenaries to patrol their neighborhoods as part of Operation Shelter.

Unfortunately for Miss Armstrong, recently published Emails prove that Barbara Frank, the principal of Lowell Elementary—one of the schools primarily affected—was completely unaware of this development. A far cry from Armstrong’s claims that “schools near the shelters have asked for security to just patrol the area.”

But Council President (and soon to be de facto Mayor) Gwen Jones chimed in to further belittle the ignorant concerns of heretics and naysayers, with all-too familiar patronizing condescension, suggesting that freshmen Counsil members “do more research to understand what led to the security contract and why it took its current form.” Because our entrenched bureaucracy will do anything to defend the profits of its donors.

While it remains unproven that such shady deals as private security occupation of our neighborhoods have resulted in direct kickbacks to the likes of John Engen, Rogers International is only one of the many splashbacks soaking Missoula’s hapless bottoms; the inevitable consequence of a load too heavy with corruption; the guaranteed result of an over-indulgence in meals scooped from the eponymous “pork barrel” of pork barrel politics. Garbage in, garbage out.

Alongside this immense shelter infrastructure, Missoula’s Homeless-Industrial-Complex recently opened their latest and greatest human misery experiment, the Clark Fork Lane Concentration Camp. Of course, the “liberal” leaders of Missoula have chosen to couch the abysmal reality of this facility in euphemism with the less offensive, politically correct moniker, “Authorized Campsite.”

If you think “concentration camp” seems a tad hyperbolic, you might be unfamiliar with the conditions on the ground, including the chain link fence and razor wire outlining the perimeter of this facility. You might be unaware of the large cell tower looming over this encampment, exposing the inhabitants to dangerous levels of sustained EMF radiation. You may be oblivious to the armed private security firm that’s now employed to conduct “sweeps” throughout the city to roundup homeless strays back into this corral. And you might not be aware of the occupying “homeless gang” that made headlines following an “axe assault” last month. 

While such ugly headlines represent an unwelcome skid mark in the pristine white shorts of the Garden City, this is the true face of Engen’s Missoula; the other, “other cheek” upon which we could never bring ourselves to turn. A cold dystopia characterized by bleak desperation. An entire working demographic made obsolete by automation, outsourcing, and austerity, left to wander an increasingly hostile city with no purpose or place or meaning. A hopeless nightmare visited on occasion by political tourists who take selfies and pat themselves on the back for exposing themselves to such degradation, before ultimately retiring to their comfortable fantasies and forgetting all about those people, until then next political cycle.

But the devil resides in the details, and the fact that this homeless encampment is surrounded by Missoula’s sewage treatment facility (which includes the Composting Facility site as well as the Poplar tree farm meant to absorb and digest Missoula’s wastewater) may be the most offensive, egregious, and diabolical aspect.

As anyone remotely familiar with the Missoula Valley will tell you, hot summer nights invite an unbearable stench into the homes of those who live anywhere near the sewage treatment facility. Those willing to brave the nearby Super WalMart parking lot on a hot day know this, and motorists routinely roll up their windows when approaching the nearby Reserve Street Bridge. 

It stinks. But that stench is more than just an inconvenience. Since smells represent diffused particles that have become disconnected from their source, as mentioned earlier, Missoula’s “Authorized Camp” situation presents a unique health crisis.

Every poop a Missoulian takes into a porcelain receptacle gets flushed down into the municipal pipes and pushed around on its way to the sewage plant. And on hot summer days the combined fecal offerings of over 70,000 humans lifts into the air around said plant. It is therefore reasonable to assert that the atmosphere surrounding the facility contains the recently excreted poop particles direct from the asses of every housed Missoulian living within the city. Those particles are then continuously breathed in by homeless people who were forcibly relocated to this location from “unlawful encampments” all throughout the valley by armed enforcers.

One might be forgiven for likening the degenerating state of American democracy to a cesspool, however unflattering such a comparison might be to the cesspool. The diligent action of barely-better-than-bacteria private interests constantly breaking down all available resources to feed their own microbial hunger feels very much encouraged by our elected officials and their sprawling bureaucracy. Under optimal circumstances, a cesspool can be a necessary and beneficial amenity. But Missoula’s countless radical adventures in political corruption has brought the cesspool into our City Hall, into our living rooms, and now directly into our very lungs.

The Martin v. City of Boise decision by the 9th Circuit limits a City’s ability to criminalize homelessness, meaning Cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds available for their homeless population. Therefore, a municipality does not have carte blanche to raid shantytowns and other homeless encampments with assault rifles and bulldozers in the style of They Live, unless the City has designated a suitable alternative location for society’s underclass.

Then they can. 

As reported by Katie Miller of MTN News

“…  in Missoula, people live in vehicles, tents, and trailers — and they park where they can. But oftentimes, that’s against city ordinance. Missoula City Ordinance 9.34.040 states “it is unlawful for any person to sit, lie or sleep upon any street or alley within the city limits of Missoula.”… when Missoula Police respond to these types of calls, officers will now encourage people to move to the camping site on Clark Fork Lane.”

That’s correct, folks. Yes, they “encourage” people to move, in exactly the same way the Salish tribe was encouraged to relocate to the Flathead Indian Reservation over a century ago. Just as Japanese and Italian Americans were encouraged to relocate to our very own Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center during the Second World War. Also note the careful framing of this newer ordinance that has generated nothing but controversy since its passage in 2013. The more things change the more they remain the same, and the classical cautionary mantra now goes something like, “First they came for the homeless, and I did not speak out, for I was not yet homeless.”

Missoula’s modern authorities seem just as eager to exact military force on the underclasses as the Copper Barons of yesteryear were, as became apparent by the strike teams armed with assault rifles near the Reserve Street Tent City last summer, where reporters were told to “Get back!” and “Keep moving!” It’s nice to see Missoula has graduated from unconstitutionally criminalizing homelessness with zero tolerance bans on sitting, lying or sleeping in public, to simply rounding up homeless individuals and placing them in a euphemistically named “Authorized Camp.” 

This sign appears unironically on the chain link fences of the “Authorized Camp.”

But with economic uncertainty approaching an all-time high, more and more families have stepped into the shoes of the so-called “vulnerable population”. Prior to the 2020 global shutdown it was already the case that 70% of Americans were just one paycheck away from joining the homeless population, which stood at more than half-a-million strong in the U.S. It is disconcerting to imagine that your neighbor could only be a mistake or two away from ending up fecalboarded in this concentration camp, and that it could all start with an act as innocuous as pinching a loaf of bread to feed the family. The fruitful harvest of late-stage capitalism’s dog-eat-dog game of musical-chair economics.

And as for the location of said Camp, Missoula’s leadership have chosen a parking lot under a cell tower, outlined in chain-link, surrounded by sewage and guarded under the watchful browneye of private security agents armed with guns and live ammunition. The City could have chosen any number of better spots for this space, but instead chose to further embarrass an already disgraced municipality with a situation for which no other phrase but “Concentration Camp” feels adequately honest.

So consider it during your next morning constitutional; consider how such well-meaning endeavors as the United States Constitution and the City of Missoula’s 10-Year-Plan-To-End-Homelessness led us to this moment. Remember that a tiny portion of our bowels’ contribution to the movement could literally end up in the lungs of the destitute; that this is the product delivered in place of the high and beautiful wave of reform we ordered.

So now, just over ten years into the 10-year plan, with your bran muffin soaking up the coffee you downed at breakfast, let the morning sun shine on your face and exposed thighs. And remember that with the right kind of nose you can almost smell the low water mark, the spot where the wave of civic enthusiasm finally broke, and flushed away.

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