Parents on Missoula's Westside are pushing the Poverello Center to rebuild farther away from their children, even as the homeless shelter moves ahead on a land purchase in the neighborhood.
The Poverello is set to close on the Trail's End property by July 1.
The shelter and soup kitchen now operates out of an old house downtown that's sorely in need of replacement. But its plans to relocate to a site on West Broadway has some Westside neighbors questioning the decision to bring the Poverello's clients closer to Lowell School, its Westside Park and playground, and their children.
"That's the community focal point in the neighborhood, and we don't want to lose that," Jed Little said of the school and busy park. "We don't want it to become a place where people are afraid to take their children and have a birthday party."
Said Greg Martin, another parent and neighbor: "The Trail's End bar is not one of the brightest spots in our neighborhood to begin with. But with the Poverello Center, you're talking about one of the largest homeless shelters in the state of Montana."
Those aren't the only concerns. And like other shelters across the country, the Pov is bound to run into some degree of opposition anywhere.
Eventually, though, some corner of Missoula is going to become home to a new Poverello and daytime Salcido Center. Sooner or later, it will become time to stop fighting and start figuring out a way to make the new facility work.
Missoula City Councilwomen Pam Walzer and Cynthia Wolken represent the ward, and their phones have been ringing with calls from worried neighbors. Wolken lives just two blocks away from the proposed site.
"We really need to focus on how to mitigate concerns and how to make sure it's a net gain for the neighborhood," Wolken said. "I really do feel that if it's done right, it can be the beginning of sort of a revitalization for the neighborhood."
But the news is still fresh and in some cases unwelcome in the neighborhood, a blossoming one but a place with its share of troubles, too.
Martin, whose family lives on Phillips Street a couple of blocks away from the school, said the Westside is a diverse neighborhood where people of all economic backgrounds live.
"This is a community that really accepts and wants to live in this town with neighbors of all walks of life," he said.
But the Westside also already has much poverty, and he doesn't want to see it concentrated in one place.
"I'm just worried about how much of Missoula's economic inequality we should be shouldering," Martin said.
Little, too, can tick off the problems Westsiders already face. He's had to work on his landscaping because his family had people sleeping in the bushes on their property. One time, a man died while sleeping in a car in front of a Westside home.
Allison McKnight, a Northsider and president of the Lowell School PTA, said the school and public playground are one and the same, so adults already are on alert to keep their children safe. Less than a year ago, a known sexual offender was coming closer and closer to the school and watching the kids.
"So ... our awareness is very heightened as to the possible problems that could occur, in general," McKnight said.
Mostly, though, the parents don't want to feel like they are in the dark about the Poverello's proposal. They want to be informed of the plans and weigh in on them.
"We don't understand how we're being considered in all of this currently," McKnight said.
"Right now, it feels like the mayor is working with the downtown business owners and pushing it out of downtown and into a neighborhood," Little said. "And the fact that we weren't involved is really frustrating."
With help from Mayor John Engen, though, the Poverello Center is moving full steam ahead to buy the Trail's End property.
Engen said he intervened when the Poverello wanted to rebuild at the Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission site on Toole Avenue because the area was "remarkably proximate to neighbors." And he again stepped in when the shelter announced plans to build a massive $7.5 million regional center on a Spruce Street funeral home property.
"Now, today, I have a responsibility to work with the Pov to create a facility that's safe, decent, comfortable and effective for poor folks in our community and for the neighborhood," Engen said.
He said he never saw the Trail's End site as being in a neighborhood. Rather, he said the blighted site is on a commercial corridor and zoning allows a casino. He believes a new shelter will be an improvement.
The Poverello Center's Kate Gadbow said the board of directors had to move swiftly to be good stewards of the organization's money and jump on the sale. And the shelter wasn't going to seek permission from everyone before doing right by the people who are its top concern.
"What could be good for our clients, too? That's kind of getting lost in this," Gadbow said.
The Pov's outreach began with the closest neighbors, such as the YWCA Missoula, and will continue from there. Once more details are available about the building, the organization will schedule a meeting with neighbors.
She said the Poverello is not considering other sites.
"I am so convinced that no place is going to be perfect in the minds of the people who decide that they should have been consulted more," Gadbow said.
A new Poverello is at least a couple of years away - and requires $4.5 million. It's conceivable the plan for the Trail's End could implode. If so, the shelter would begin a hunt for another location, as some neighbors would like.
On a Facebook group formed to protest the West Broadway location, Councilwoman Pam Walzer posted suggestions for how a new Poverello Center and daytime Salcido Center should operate - wherever they reside in Missoula. Among them:
• Reverse the policy to kick out residents at 7 a.m. to encourage residents to stay and seek appropriate social services.
• Have a place within the facility to smoke and socialize. "Hanging around or lining up outside like we see at the Pov on Ryman (Street) will not be the norm."
• "Resolving policy conflicts that might allow inebriated people to get some services but kicks them out at night."
• The facility will be "designed to be a visual asset" wherever it is located.
Wolken, too, has ideas for how the Pov can not only contain its own problems but possibly even improve the area. She said she doesn't know if it's within the shelter's budget, but she would like to see security officers patrol around the clock.
"If they patrol both in and out of the neighborhood in a really visible way, I think that would really help," Wolken said. "It could increase the safety of the neighborhood to a better level than what it was before."
The Poverello itself is looking ahead at how to be neighborly, too. Gadbow said when clients leave the new facility, for instance, staff members can educate them to keep away from Lowell School.
The shelter's policies on sexual and violent offenders surely will be scrutinized. Having registered offenders in the neighborhood is a top concern among some neighbors. The Pov, though, noted in an email that "there are more registered sex offenders currently registered and living in the Clark Fork Motel, City Lodge Motel and the Brownies - all of these hotels are on Broadway - than are currently being serving through the Poverello Center."
The conversations are bound to continue as the Poverello moves ahead, either on this site or another.
In the meantime, here's what neighbor Greg Martin wants people to know. Even though he'd like the shelter away from the neighborhood, he and other neighbors aren't NIMBYs, and they aren't afraid of people who are poor or without homes.
"We live with a lot of people who are poor and deal with issues of poverty, and they are our neighbors," Martin said.
Here's what the Poverello Center's Gadbow wants people to know. Most of the people the shelter serves aren't sex offenders. A recent study in Missoula showed they are people who want help with a bite to eat or shelter, and some are highly educated.
"What we did learn is a lot of the clients are the living poor and the working poor living in the heart of the city," Gadbow said.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, firstname.lastname@example.org or on MissoulaRedTape.com.