The camper, parked on an unnamed and unlit road, is nearly invisible in the night, but the woman who steps out of it wants to be seen.
Debee Keep, 61, has lived alone inside this 32-foot trailer, an old fifth-wheel Kit Companion, since September 2016. She emerges in a black peacoat with a tie-dyed backpack, asking to speak inside a reporter’s car so she can warm up. The door lights reveal Keep’s sparkling blue eyeshadow and stylish dark hair. She was a cosmetologist in one of her past lives.
Keep usually tries to maintain a low profile. She can’t afford to be seen by passersby, like the man in an Xterra who cruises past twice in five minutes, or the man she says makes eyes each morning while walking his dog. It takes just one person to complain, Keep says, then the police will come knocking again, and she’ll have to find another spot to set up. She’s already done it 18 times in the last 15 months.
But Keep does want to be seen by the members of Missoula City Council, which will hold a public hearing Dec. 18 on changes to a city ordinance that targets camper-dwellers like her. She wants to be seen not as a nuisance, or a lawbreaker, or an eyesore, but as she appears under the dome lights of a warm car at night: a woman who feels like a shadow of herself, but not a shadow.
“I want to have a home. I want to be normal,” Keep says. “I’m not a criminal for being homeless.”
She has been breaking the law. City code bans sleeping overnight in vehicles in the public right of way, and state law prohibits parking on streets for more than five consecutive days. It’s difficult to prove whether someone is sleeping inside a camper, so a city working committee on urban camping has pushed revisions that would make it easier to crack down on what it claims is a small number of problem individuals. But the changes could make life even harder for people like Keep.
“This ordinance may put more folks at risk of losing their shelter, and does not address or alleviate the affordable housing crisis we are facing in Missoula,” says Poverello Center Director of Operations Kristen Border Patton.
Keep became homeless after an eviction cost her her public housing voucher. She received her circa-1990 camper from a friend two weeks later. Her life quickly became a game of whack-a-mole as she was forced to haul her Companion around town every few weeks with the help of a truck owner. Keep says she tries to be a “good neighbor” by having a company dump her sewage tank, properly disposing of her trash, not parking too close to residences and introducing herself to adjacent property owners. Inevitably, though, someone complains, like the man she says asked if he would need to “put a bomb” under the camper to get her to leave.
“All I want is my 32 feet,” Keep says.
The ordinance changes aren’t designed to hurt Keep, who, like most camping homeless, moves along when asked to, city compliance officer Charmell Owens says. The revised prohibition—which would ban “occupying” an RV without adjacent property owner permission—targets what Owens calls the “one percent” of cases in which a camper creates a public health hazard or neighborhood disturbance and refuses to cooperate with police. Owens says the current rule is enforced only when residents file complaints, and that she and police officers look for ways to connect the camper dwellers they meet with homeless services, which she acknowledges aren’t always available. They don’t issue fines or tow vehicles. Still, she believes that a prohibition on camping on city streets is necessary to maintain public safety and health, and that the city’s compassionate approach to enforcement won’t create unintended hardships.
“We’re trying to find that balance between helping the property owners and helping the people who are homeless find a solution,” she says.
The balancing act doesn’t always lead to good outcomes. Westside resident Miranda Avery used to have a camper parked on her block occupied by a man whom residents came to watch over as a neighbor. One night several years ago, though, a passerby saw the man urinating in the grass and complained to the city. Police made him move, and Avery says that within a week or so neighbors learned that he had died outside a former Safeway on Broadway.
Keep dreads a similar fate.
“It’s really stressful for me. It’s hard for me,” she says. “Sometimes I get to the point where I don’t know where to go.”