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Volunteers clean up large homeless camp under Rims
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Volunteers clean up large homeless camp under Rims

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Kyle Austin on the rims

Billings contractor Kyle Austin took the initiative to clean up a homeless camp after seeing a picture on social media.

About the only thing cleanup crews didn't find while clearing out a massive, partially hidden homeless camp beneath the Rims on Thursday was a kitchen sink. 

Billings Parks Department employees planned to be there on Thursday to continue the cleanup.

"I was not expecting what we seen," said Kyle Austin, who went to the site with his father to start cleaning as soon as he saw a Billings Gazette photo of the site pop up online. 

Austin, a woodworker with his own business Uprise Epoxy, grew up near that section of the Rims; his grandfather's home was just below the spot where the encampment was found. When he saw the photo, he recognized the spot immediately. 

Homeless camp

A deer (upper right) watches over debris from a homeless camp beneath the Billings Rimrocks.

The photo was taken by Gazette photo editor Larry Mayer, who discovered the abandoned camp while photographing the city's skyline from the top of the Rims earlier this week. 

Austin has a pickup with an 8-foot bed, which he loaded eight times while cleaning the site. He compared the amount and variety of trash he found to what would be in a landfill. 

"What blew my mind was all the family pictures," he said. 

To him it appeared the camp was a place where those who had burglarized homes had taken their stolen goods, pulled out what was valuable and left the rest behind. 

"It was like a thief zone," he said. 

Austin is a new father. As a boy he used to tromp around exploring under the Rims with his dad, and he hopes to do the same one day with his daughter. For that to happen, he said the community must work together to keep the Rims clean and safe.

As a woodworker, he's also concerned about the environment. His desire to keep the wild spaces in Billings clean and healthy was another factor motivating him to help clean up the site. 

"It's just not right for the environment to be treated like this," he said. 

Kyle Austin on the rims

Billings contractor Kyle Austin took the initiative to clean up a homeless camp after seeing a picture on social media.

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It wasn't the first time that specific spot under the Rims had come to the attention of the city; crews have cleared it of garbage and debris "several times," said Billings Parks Department director Mike Whitaker. 

The parks department is typically the city agency responsible for cleanups like these. It coordinates closely with the Billings Police Department and has an officer dedicated specifically to patrolling the parks.

The parks department also has the heavy equipment on hand and the employees who are trained to remove dangerous material and have the experience doing it, Whitaker said. 

"We're more equipped to handle cleanups like this," he said. 

In fact, as summer turns to fall the parks department cleans up on average two to three camps a month. The camps become more visible as leaves start to fall, Whitaker said. 

A number of agencies in Billings have worked for years to find ways to assist the city's homeless and transient populations. Different shelters that serve those in immediate crisis and those who need longer-term attention have long existed. 

This month, the Continuum of Care coalition partnered to open Off The Streets in the old Western Inn, a low-barrier shelter designed to serve those who want to get out of the cold for the night but don't meet the requirements to stay at the city's other shelters. 

Off The Streets has been open for less than a week and has so far seen a handful of guests, said Craig Barthel, the shelter's director. 

He's hopeful that with the various shelters open and coordinating this winter that those who want to get out of the cold and crash in a safe place will be able to do that. 

"We just don't want to see anyone on the street," he said. "All those who want to get inside can get inside."

But, he acknowledged, not everyone wants to get inside.

While Austin was cleaning up the site on Thursday, he was approached by a man wondering if Austin would hire him to help. Austin paid the man to help remove the debris, bought him lunch and then took him home to load him up with more food and supplies.

The man had been camping in his own spot a ways from the encampment. He said he knows shelters are available to him, but he prefers his spot under the Rims — even when it gets cold.

Barthel, who was executive director of St. Vincent de Paul in Billings before taking over at Off The Streets, has heard similar notions from those he's helped in the past. They tell Barthel that some people don't want four walls or need four walls. 

"It speaks to our nature," he said. "We're defiant creatures."

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