A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Illegal homeless encampments have been growing since the pandemic. Cities are struggling to respond. Some are resorting to setting up regulated, sanctioned outdoor camps even now in the dead of winter. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The homelessness crisis, particularly in major West Coast cities, grabs the headlines - tent cities lining freeways and spreading into busy entertainment districts. But every night, an untold number of people are also sleeping outside in smaller inland cities.
FRANKIE CLARK: My tent's the second one there.
SIEGLER: This has been Frankie Clark's world for the past couple years. She's 63 and has mostly been living in her car in the mountain town of Missoula, Mont.
CLARK: I had a car, actually. I was lucky. I got a car for $100, and I slept in it, but the winter before, I slept in my son-in-law's car. And so, yeah, it's been hard.
SIEGLER: Affordable housing in Missoula, population 70,000, is scarce. The median home price is creeping toward half a million dollars. Clark lived in her car until it got impounded. The city's only year-round shelter had limited its capacity due to COVID.
CLARK: And I was at the end. I didn't know what I was going to do.
SIEGLER: Until she heard about Missoula's temporary safe outdoor space, where she's been living since September. Local charities in the county set it up as an alternative to the illegal and controversial encampments that had been springing up around town. Some people just won't go to shelters, capacity or not, and others can't use federal hotel vouchers because they don't have IDs.
CLARK: This is our warming shelter here, and we go in there.
SIEGLER: So here near a golf course on the city's outskirts is a sanctioned homeless camp. There's a collection of 20 canvas wall tents equipped with propane heaters and suspended off the snowy ground on wood planks. It's winter in Montana. Today, the temperature is about 10 degrees.
ASHLEY CORBALLY: There needed to be something that could be put up quickly, that could be a sustainable and temporary.
SIEGLER: Ashley Corbally manages the safe outdoor space, which is partly funded with federal COVID relief money.
CORBALLY: We know this is just a Band-Aid to the problem, but it's just something that we can do right now and effect real change in people's lives.
SIEGLER: And residents like Frankie Clark say they feel safer here. There's 24-hour security and access to social services.
CLARK: Yeah, you can't work and live in a car. No. And this place made it so much easier for me to be able to go to sleep at night and get up in morning and be able to, you know, go where I had to go and do the things I had to do. And they helped me tell me where I had to go and what I needed to do and keep on track.
SIEGLER: Missoula's sanctioned camp was modeled after similar efforts in Las Cruces, N.M., and Durango, Colo. At the National Homelessness Law Center, legal director Eric Tars has been watching this nationwide trend with some trepidation.
ERIC TARS: We're assuming essentially that we're creating permanent shantytowns here in the wealthiest country in the world and that that's OK.
SIEGLER: Tars says communities are being forced down this path due to a 40-year deficit in affordable housing construction. He says federal lawmakers have a tool right in front of them to start chipping away at that - the proposed Build Back Better legislation.
TARS: We need to start by saying that the best place for everyone is fully adequate housing. And legal encampments, while they can be a form of harm reduction, are not fully adequate housing, particularly in a Montana winter but anywhere.
SIEGLER: In Missoula, which has launched an Operation Shelter program, there are plans for more sanctioned camps this year, but leaders say these are only a stopgap until more permanent housing developments come online next year. And since their safe outdoor space opened, about a third of the 90 or so people living in it have moved into more stable housing...
CLARK: I'm sorry. I'm so happy right now.
SIEGLER: ...Including 63-year-old Frankie Clark, who just got some good news.
CLARK: I can move into a one-bedroom with a washer and a dryer, everything. It's going to be awesome (laughter). Yeah.
SIEGLER: An apartment just opened up for her. It feels like a small victory.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Missoula.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.