Where did they go? People without homes forced to relocate after evictions in Great Falls, Missoula

By: - August 16, 2022 5:10 pm

Ross Quick volunteers at the First United Methodist Church in Great Falls in late July. Quick owns a camper and was able to relocate to a parking lot on the West Side of Great Falls after the encampment was required to disperse earlier this month. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

At 9 a.m. on August 1, the residents of the encampment in the parking lot of First United Methodist Church in Great Falls were asked to evacuate the premises.

By 10:30 a.m., nearly everyone had cleared out.

“Many were understandably emotional,” Giovanna Minardi of nonprofit Housed Great Falls said in a text that morning. “A tough day, and unfortunately it’s going to be a very hot one as well. We now look towards the future.”

In the last two weeks, people living in at least two unhoused communities in Montana, one in Great Falls and the other in Missoula, have been asked to leave the grounds in a month that could shape up to be one of the hottest Augusts on record. Some people have set up tents on sidewalks in other corners of those cities, and at least one woman who worried about dropping back into a life of substance use could not be reached.

Tim Owens, a Great Falls Rescue Mission resident, said this week that some former church parking lot residents have started camping outside the mission, which requires residents to stay sober and attend religious services to be checked in. He said about eight people had set up camp on the sidewalk of the mission on Monday, along with at least one motorhome.

Owens said having people outside drinking and using illegal substances has been hard on the community inside the mission, including himself.

“People are trying to stay sober and trying to do the next right thing, and they go outside to smoke a cigarette and there’s a guy there offering a bottle,” Owens said. “It’s hard for everybody all the way around.”

The Rescue Mission could not be reached for comment Monday via email or Tuesday via a follow-up voicemail.

Owens said he’d like to see the people outside the mission sobered up.

“Right now I don’t think a lot of them have a choice,” he said. “I think they have to wake up to a sip in order to get up.”

Ross Quick, 64, a former resident of the encampment at the church, helped others pack up the morning they were asked to leave.

“A lot of them were in disbelief,” Quick said.

He said some former encampment residents thought they could band together to stay, but he said that wasn’t the reality of the situation.

“No, they will run you off and you will get arrested for this,” he said.

He’s heard that some people are now down by the Missouri River, and he said others sleep in the dirt between bushes and buildings in town. Some went to another church just up the street, but Quick said they quickly got turned away after doing the “same stupid stuff.”

Quick said there were about six Great Falls Police Department cars parked outside the encampment, but officers didn’t intervene besides interacting with people who came to speak to them.

“They weren’t being a–h—- or anything, and that was cool,” he said of the police that morning. “Where I’m from there would have been Gestapo tactics.”

Another Montana community recently handled the removal of unhoused people in a manner that seems to contrast the situation in Great Falls.

The Missoulian reported that last week, private security company Rogers International, contracted through the city of Missoula, conducted a compliance check at an authorized campsite, going tent to tent with some security officers in tactical gear, faces covered and hat brims low.

One resident told the Missoulian that 15 of the 40 residents were asked to leave that day, with some having to pack their belongings in an hour to be able to use public transit.

Quick said he didn’t think all of that was necessary, but with it being a private security company, they may want to “show who’s boss.”

In Great Falls, Quick moved his camper to the permanently closed Shopko parking lot on the west side and is still checking in on campsites around town with no luck.

Quick said he’d like to reach out to Shopko headquarters and offer a donation or some sort of compensation for being able to stay in the parking lot.

“I don’t mind paying my way,” he said. “If I can afford it.”

Quick is still looking for work as a peer support specialist after recently passing the state exam.

Looking ahead to winter, Quick says he’s still weighing his options. He said he knows he’s lucky to have the camper, even if it isn’t airtight. One woman died in the cold earlier this year outside the church, according to Housed Great Falls.

Quick said he has considered heading somewhere with a warmer climate, but he likes Montana.

“Generally the people are really nice,” Quick said. “They might not be as nice if they knew that I was one of the homeless people from [First United Methodist] but they don’t know that, so everybody’s cool.”

The Daily Montanan was unable to reestablish contact with Susan Raining Bird, who was a leader in the Great Falls encampment at the First United Methodist Church and featured in coverage leading up to the eviction of residents. 

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.