A visual story of Montana’s houseless residents.
PHOTOS BY HAZEL CRAMER
On Sept. 13, 2023, the Wall Street Journal published a story about Missoula, Montana. In the opening photo, a kayaker pushes their paddle through a clear river, and sunlight falls through the gaps in the cottonwoods and onto the sandy bank beside him. It’s a scene quintessential to Montana’s western river town, right down to the cluster of tents and haphazard belongings on the beach. A bold headline is overlayed on the image: “This Montana Town is Facing a Homelessness Problem Similar to Larger Cities.”
Indeed, this is a deviation from the glorified way Montana usually ends up in national publications, touting its ski areas as idyllic winter vacations and its burgeoning college towns—like Missoula—as some of the fastest growing places in the country. But to residents of the state, this Wall Street Journal story isn’t groundbreaking. Such headlines have held front-page real estate in local newspapers for most of 2023, as have photos of similar homeless camps and city streets lined with dozens of campers and other make-shift shelters.
Homelessness is one of Montana’s most visible and contentious modern challenges, proving the state isn’t exempt from the rising trend of homelessness in the United States. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in 2020 that an estimated 1,545 people are experiencing homelessness in Montana on a single night, or roughly 14.5 people per every 10,000, the 18th highest rate among the 50 states. The HUD’s 2022 report also found that nationally, Montana saw the second largest increase in the number of individuals experiencing chronic patterns of homelessness at 313%.
Some sources suggest more could be done at the state level to support communities dealing with this crisis, but recent action could change that. In Montana’s 68th legislative session in 2023, House Bill 5 appropriated up to $5 million in grants the Department of Commerce can offer nonprofits that provide emergency shelter to the homeless for “emergency shelter, property acquisition, construction, shelter space acquisition, or general capital improvement projects.” Others argue its more of a “macroeconomic problem,” with circumstances mainly driven by the real estate market moreso than state legislation.
Responses from Montana’s urban hubs further illustrate the scale of the issue, and the inflection point the state faces in addressing it. Missoula, which has long grappled with its homeless population, took action on its exacerbated condition when its mayor declared a homelessness and sheltering state of emergency in June of 2023, an unprecedented action for the city. Subsequent sweeps have shut down encampments, costing the city more than $40,000 during the summer and displacing unsheltered people.
Across the Divide, action around homelessness has dominated city commission agendas and public discussion in Bozeman. Camper-lined streets are becoming increasingly visible, and “urban camping” has become a household term as well as a political one. In October of 2023, the Bozeman City Commission passed an ordinance requiring people sleeping in their vehicles or campers on city streets to relocate every 30 days, and allowing the city to issue civil fines of up to $25. The ratified version reduced terms of an original draft that required people move after five days and allowed fines of up to $100. The Bozeman ordinance, as well as related issues, have attracted significant community feedback, with people both suggesting that the regulations are too harsh or not harsh enough.
Bozeman businesses filed a lawsuit in the same month against the City of Bozeman, claiming the city has failed to enforce its own laws regarding urban campers. The lawsuit requests the encampments are moved from near their businesses “to more suitable, safe and healthy locations.” The plaintiffs have also asked for a detailed plan, with deadlines and action items, “assuring the health, safety and security of all existing urban encampments on public lands or public streets,” Montana Free Press reported.
This issue’s Outbound Gallery attempts to deconstruct these headlines and statistics through the power of story. Through Montana photojournalist Hazel Cramer’s intimate exploration of three individuals’ experiences of homelessness in Bozeman, Missoula and Billings, perhaps the hard line bisecting this issue can dissolve, and this gallery can inspire innate connection rooted in the human experience.
Hayes stands near East Broadway Street in Missoula on Oct. 4, 2023.
LEFT: Hayes starts warming coffee in her current camp as her partner David Stoen inspects their pigeon adoptees. “We have so much more to do every day to get our basic needs met than the normal person has to,” Stoen said. “And we don’t know, one day to the next, when they’re just going to come and take this all away.” | RIGHT: Hayes holds a Missoulian article featuring a photo of herself advocating for the houseless in Missoula. “I started doing some advocacy work because I realized someone had to start telling our perspective,” she said.
LEFT: Kneeling on the bank of the Clark Fork River, Hayes carefully adds new stones to her rock garden. “I don’t know if I look for the heart-shaped ones, or if they find me,” she said. | RIGHT: Hayes pets one of her unicorns in her stuffy collection. “You have to find joy in the little things because that’s really all you have,” Hayes said.
LEFT: Hayes and Stoen caress on the corner where Stoen had been holding a cardboard sign asking for help for an hour. “This story is about so much more than me,” Hayes said. “It’s about the situation that everybody’s in. The houseless community as a whole.” | RIGHT: Hayes wears a butterfly ring to remember a lost friend from a dark time in her life. When she was 19, Hayes says she was captured and forced into a torture traffic ring. Another victim of the ring didn’t make it out. “We called her Butterfly because she was the smallest of all of us,” Hayes said.
Atkinson is looking toward a better future. He stood for a portrait on Oct. 8, 2023 in front of the sugar beet factory where he works.
LEFT: Atkinson holds two of his most sentimental possessions: his Bible and a picture of his daughter, with whom he is excited to restart a relationship. She was adopted in 2015, but Atkison says he stays in touch with her new family to follow her childhood. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” he said. | RIGHT: After getting ready, Atkinson heads downstairs to the cafeteria which doubles as an emergency shelter room when it’s cold. “Eggs and bacon?” Atkinson said smiling, “This is a good day—it’s not usually like this.”
LEFT: Atkinson meets up with some buddies and walks the 10 blocks to the sugar beet factory. The MRM requires guests to save 80% of their paycheck, which Atkinson said will help him pay for his GED equivalency test. He hopes to attend a trade school for welding. | RIGHT: After waking up at 6 a.m., Atkinson gets ready for work. “You kinda get used to sharing a bathroom after a while of being here,” he said. He shares a windowless bunk room and bathroom with 47 other men.
LEFT: Atkinson laces up his work boots in the MRM lobby. “Anyone else who’s in the same position as me should come over here and get as much help as possible. There are plenty of resources here in Billings—and if you want to get into a place, they’ll help you and make sure you’ll get in one.” | RIGHT: Atkinson leaves work to head back to the shelter. “Through this program, I learned to not be so judgmental of other people in my position. You don’t know what anyone’s going through actually. Until you walk in their shoes, how could you judge them?”
Kendra Alton stands for a portrait outside her kids’ school in Bozeman. “The school has been amazing— they gave us 10 nights in a motel right before Family Promise took our case,” she said on Oct. 5, 2023.
LEFT: Alton holds her youngest, Jorgi, as (from left to right) Butch, Jeremiah and Vanessa finish dinner in their temporary housing on the evening of Oct. 18, 2023. “Losing this place is my biggest fear. This is a home for my family now—I just can’t go through that again,” she said. | RIGHT: Getting ready for work, Alton puts mascara on as her twins watch. “Having the older kids in school and the younger ones in daycare has been the best possible thing for us. Now I can go to work and get them after the day is done,” she said on Oct. 19, 2023.
LEFT: Jorgi, 3, has bathtime in the kitchen sink as the other kids cycle through the family’s shared bathroom to get ready for bed. “In the beginning, I would wait until everybody went to sleep and I would just go in the bathroom and just cry. Not even because I was sad, it just felt like the right thing to do—it was just all built up. I did always feel better afterwards though,” Alton said. | RIGHT: All five kids hang out around Mom’s room. Alton’s bed shares space with Jorgi’s crib (right), one of the dog kennels and the elliptical (left), all tucked in a corner right off the kitchen. “I applied for a new apartment through the HRDC, and we’re 10th on the waiting list. The three bedroom would be the most ideal,” Alton said on Oct. 19, 2023.
LEFT: Alton stands for a portrait on one of the last warm days in Bozeman with her five kids: Jeremiah, Veta, Vanessa, Jorgi and Butch. “My kids are thriving here, and so am I.” If all goes according to plan, Alton will start at the PetSmart Academy Nov. 26, 2023, to become a certified dog groomer, meaning more responsibility and a pay raise. | RIGHT: “Mom, I think my lips are really chapped,” says Veta, Alton’s oldest. Alton drives from PetSmart, where she works as an assistant dog groomer, to her kid’s elementary school for pick-up round one. “I’ll get the babies next,” Alton said on Nov. 3, 2023.
Inside Mountain Outlaw
In this interview, Mountain Outlaw Managing Editor Bella Butler speaks with photojournalist Hazel Cramer about the process and story behind her gallery, “Houseless in Montana,” which tells the stories of three unhoused individuals from different Montana cities.
Listen to the full interview:
Hazel Cramer is a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist in Bozeman, Montana. In her work, she draws attention to humanitarian issues in the hope that it will inspire readers to think critically about their role in society.