BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — It’s a sunny, cool Tuesday evening in September. A breeze gently ripples Bozeman Pond as three ducks splash in and out of the water. Sunlight dapples about a dozen tents nestled on the northeast side of the pond, where about a dozen people who are unable to find housing elsewhere in Bozeman have been living.
A woman living at the pond recently missed an opportunity for a shower, the first in several days, because she was caring for a sick neighbor. Another man was collecting oranges and clementines, both bought and donated, with the plan to share when more people returned to their tents after work, appointments or being out for the day. A few nights prior, the community got together for a barbecue, where they shared food so everyone had something to eat.
Clifton Hegstad has been living near the pond for a few months. It’s a better place than he’s been in in a long time, he said, though winter is now looming.
Like most everyone there, Hegstad has a story about why he’s living in a tent near the pond. He suffered a serious spine injury while working in North Dakota installing floor covers years ago. He received a grant for a treatment to help his recovery in Billings, which brought him to Montana, where he fell on hard times.
“At that time, I couldn’t get any help,” he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Hegstad lived unhoused in Missoula for a time. But there, he wasn’t able to leave his tent set up, so he took it down every morning and carried it with him or stashed it and risked having it stolen, which did happen.
Like most of the people living in the area, he takes care of his trash daily, even though the roughly half-mile walk to and from the nearest unlocked dumpster can be taxing.
“We could keep this place a lot cleaner if there was somewhere closer to throw garbage,” he said. “But I can’t complain. I’ve got a place to stay.”
Even with the long walk to the garbage, the area around Hegstad’s tent is clean — nothing other than grass, getting dry and crunchy after a dry summer, surrounded the tent.
If you walk past Hegstad while he’s sitting in his camping chair, enjoying the mild-for-now weather and the serene view of the pond, the 62-year-old will likely give you a wide smile. If you’re walking a dog, though, he’ll almost definitely give you a smile. Someday, when he’s in a position to take care of a pet, he’d like to adopt a dog.
Having a place where his tent can remain means he can have a cooler to store food and collect a few belongings — not many, but more than nothing.
“At least you can leave your tent set up here, and you have a place to come home to,” Hegstad said.
Perception and reality
In talking to people in Bozeman, it’s as if there are two different Bozeman Pond camps.
There’s the perceived idea of the camp at the pond — that people without homes are more dangerous, dirtier or less deserving of community than those who are able to afford apartments and homes in Bozeman, where the median price for a single-family home was $769,000 in August 2021.
And then there’s the one that exists in reality — it’s not without problems, but it has community gatherings, groups going together to worship services and people helping each other when sick or in need.
Josh, just a short walk down the gravel-and-dirt trail from Hegstad, found Bozeman Pond after being told by police that he couldn’t camp at three different places in less than 48 hours during the spring.
“April was rough,” said Josh, who declined to provide his last name for publication.
A friend helped him get a tent and Josh, originally from Long Island, pitched it at the pond. Recently, he helped introduce another person looking for shelter to the community.
“It’s one day at a time, one moment at a time,” Josh said.
With employment as a painter and a landscaper, he said he generally feels safe at the camp. Police stop by regularly, but “the cops don’t really bother us,” he said. They’re mostly there to check in and make sure people have what they need, and to remind folks to keep a clean camp and follow the law.
While people don’t hassle him often, and he feels safe for the most part at the pond, Josh said it’s clear some people don’t think they should be there.
“They don’t even have to say a word, they just give you a look,” he said. “There’s a stigma about homeless people” — that they’re dangerous, all in active addiction or living off the government — “but not the people I know.”
Marek Ziegler, a community resource officer with Bozeman Police Department, has been doing active, consistent outreach to unhoused people for about two years. He visits camps around Bozeman, including the one at Bozeman Pond. He talks with the residents, sees if they need anything, reminds them to follow the law.
He said the number of people who are unable to afford a home in Bozeman has grown and put people — mainly locals, though recently more folks from other areas — on the street.
“I think a lot of the misconception around here is that this is a choice. And, really, it’s not,” Ziegler said. “A lot of people are struggling here and it’s a multitude of factors, including the housing costs.”
As BPD’s community resource officer, Ziegler often finds himself talking to people who don’t know about an important 2019 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. That ruling found that laws barring camping and sleeping in public areas when they have nowhere else to go violated the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. If people had nowhere to go — and Bozeman has no public year-round shelter — cities cannot ticket them for sleeping on sidewalks and in parks.
Another common misconception, Ziegler said, is that unhoused people don’t have jobs or aren’t working. But in reality, many are working two or more jobs, and those who aren’t are often working to overcome barriers to employment.
“They’re struggling, not just with housing, but there’s a lot of mental health issues and addiction issues that go along with this, and that all plays a part in the actual problem,” he said.
The police department teams up with the Human Resources Development Council and the Western Montana Mental Health Center to do regular check-ups on camps in town and make sure people know the resources that are available, like showers and laundry at the Human Resource Development Council’s day center on Wheat Drive and mental health care through Western Montana Mental Health Center.
Crystal Baker, HRDC’s homeless services outreach specialist, echoed what Ziegler said: one of the biggest misconceptions about people living homeless is that they are choosing to be homeless.
“This isn’t an ideal situation for anybody,” said Baker while dropping off care packages and checking in on a camp. “This is a very vulnerable place for them to be.”
HRDC does “literally anything that we can do” to get people into homes, Baker said. But one thing HRDC can’t do is magically make new homes — they, too, must work inside the confines of Bozeman’s housing market. Recently, the organization has moved some people into tiny homes, but those homes still take time and money to build.
The nonprofit has a day center at 2015 Wheat Drive, open Sunday through Thursday, where people can shower, do laundry, use a computer and pick up necessities like sack lunches, socks and toothbrushes. During the winter, from the beginning of November through the end of March, HRDC operates the Warming Center at the same location for people who wouldn’t otherwise have a place to sleep out of the cold.
HRDC also offers services to help connect people to housing, housing waitlists and other resources.
“All of the people (unhoused in Bozeman) are actively working, working on seeking housing, or trying to work through the barriers they’re facing,” Baker said.
The Western Montana Mental Health Center also visits camps around Bozeman to check on clients and see if anybody needs the help it’s able to provide.
Kaylee Ackerman, a care coordinator with Western Montana Mental Health Center, has clients who work full-time jobs but are living outside or in their vehicles because they can’t find anywhere they can afford.
“Nobody wants to sleep outside and feel unsafe,” Ackerman said.
A safer Bozeman Pond
Sarah Guza has owned her home just a few blocks from Bozeman Pond for about 12 years, and has lived in Bozeman for more than 30. She moved here from Great Falls at 10 years old.
The number of tents at Bozeman pond has grown throughout the summer and there were some “bad seeds” who were living at there at one point, Guza said. But in recent months, those people seem to have left and there have been positive changes in the area. For Guza, there were two different camps — the before and the after.
“There were some residents at the pond that were violent, and definitely showing to have mental health issues and possible drug use,” she said. “The pond became safer” after those people left, she said.
“I haven’t sensed any violence from the current residents, so that’s good,” Guza said. “I feel safe walking past them …. I think they’re not necessarily bad people, some have just had bad luck and have been through enough.”
A few weeks ago, Guza connected with an HRDC staff member to talk through some of her concerns about the campsite at the pond. Her main concern about the camp, aside from the fact that Bozeman residents are having to sleep outside, is about trash and waste. She’s also worried that unhoused people might not be getting the mental health care they need without any form of long-term inpatient mental health care in Bozeman.
“I was kind of worried about vandalism, but I’m not worried about it anymore,” she said. “The bad seeds have moved on.”
‘The best we can be’
There are a variety of reasons people don’t want to have their name in a published, especially if it reveals they’re living unhoused or going through a hard time.
The Chronicle spoke to about a half-dozen people living at Bozeman Pond for this story, but some — mainly those who are from Bozeman and had concerns about being recognized by people they know — asked to stay anonymous, or not be included at all.
One of those who asked to stay anonymous, a woman with red hair and a smile she gives freely, said she “couldn’t be more thankful” that she and others were able to camp there this summer. HRDC does a great job, though they could use more community support, she said.
The woman has lived at the pond for about four months, and is happy it’s a beautiful spot where she’s able to feel safe. The police are doing a good job keeping them out of harm’s way, she said, and she’s on HRDC’s housing waiting list and hopeful she’ll be able to be housed through one of its programs. Winter is coming soon.
“We’re just trying to become better people, the best we can be,” she said. “Even good people fall and make mistakes … we’re just trying to get up on our feet and not bother anyone.”