The Union Gospel Mission faces retroactive rules on its plan to move a soup kitchen into a former bakery on Broadway after the Missoula City Council meeting on Monday night.
An hour and a half of impassioned testimony preceded the vote as Westside neighborhood residents complained the soup kitchen’s clients had made their homes unsafe, while mission supporters said they were helping people who had nowhere else to go. The council voted 10-1 to impose conditional zoning on homeless shelters, soup kitchens and related services in order to force negotiations that might cure some of those concerns.
But the interim ordinance can only last six months, after which the City Council must adopt a permanent version or see its zoning rules revert to their previous status. Although the city has the power to impose conditions like spacing, building style and landscaping on many kinds of commercial-area construction, it neglected to include private social service facilities like Union Gospel Mission in the law.
Soup kitchens and homeless shelters would be prohibited in residential areas under the temporary restrictions. The proposed site for the mission is in a commercial corridor, but just 20 feet from people’s homes.
Ward 6 Councilman Ed Childers tried to postpone the decision by to give more time to work out an agreement. He feared allowing the law to take effect before Union Gospel Mission filed its building permit in August was unfair and risked legal challenge.
But the council voted 8-3 to keep working on it Monday night, with only Childers, Ward 1’s Dave Strohmaier and Ward 4’s Jon Wilkins voting to delay. The full council then approved the temporary zoning rules 10-1, with only Childers opposed.
“Union Gospel Mission and the people who live in that area have a great opportunity to prove me wrong and prove they can come up with a solution, Childers said. “I’ll vote against the ordinance, but hope for the best and participate in the process.”
A heavy majority of speakers told the council of how homeless people hanging around the previous soup kitchen at Toole Avenue and Spruce Street increased crime, made them fear for their children’s safety and degraded a neighborhood that was unfairly burdened with other social services, such as the Poverello Center.
“Missoula has a homeless problem because of all the services we offer,” Cooper Street resident Doug Loskutoff testified. “All of Missoula’s citizens should share in the burden of this policy. When people label us as uncaring NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), they should remember Missoula’s homeless problem is already in our backyards.”
Union Gospel Mission executive director Candace Day testified she was very concerned about the fairness of the retroactive nature of the new rule. She also pleaded with the council to respect the group’s effort and said its members were trying to re-establish trust with the community.
“We don’t want to be an agency that serves handout after handout,” Day told the council members. “We have had to do some refocusing, because we’ve stepped away from accountability we wanted in place. But how do we get them (homeless people) off the street and into the community if we treat them like they’re invisible?”
Day declined to comment after the vote, saying she was exhausted after a day of travel before the meeting.