You can thank the belligerent drunks on the street corner.

In part because of their high profile, Missoula has a report in hand that shows those folks don't represent most people who are homeless.

"This small, irritating core group consumes the most amount of public attention, the most amount of public resources and causes the most amount of trouble," said Susan Hay Patrick, chief executive officer of United Way of Missoula County. "They're not emblematic of all homeless people in Missoula County."

Who is? The report, "Homelessness and Housing Instability in Missoula Needs Assessment 2010," shows that 46 percent of the people who were homeless in the past three years have completed at least some college. Many work, and many have families.

In Montana, Missoula has the largest population of homeless families, according to the 2010 Montana Homeless Survey.

"As a nation, we have seen the biggest percentage increase of that new face of homelessness be women with children," said Rick Garcia, regional chairman of the Federal Interagency Council on Homelessness. "That is probably one of the most sobering visual identifications of our population that most people probably don't realize."

The good news? While the challenges related to homelessness are complex and enormous, with some stretching the community can wrap its arms around them.

"It is a finite problem that can be solved," Hay Patrick said.

At least 280 communities across the country are in some stage of developing 10-year plans to end homelessness. Here, Mayor John Engen said ending homelessness is both a moral duty and a financial imperative.

"As mayor, I think we have a fiscal obligation to do this. It makes good financial sense for the community to find a place for these folks to live," said Engen, who commissioned the needs assessment.

*****

So what's next? Who leads? Who follows? Whose mission changes? How do resources get divvied up in the future?

In Billings, city administrator Christina Volek said her community developed its plan by including as many agencies and groups as possible, sharing leadership, recognizing that resources are dwindling and self-policing against turf wars.

"With everybody facing declining revenues and increasing needs, it really is critical that the agencies work together so that we're not replicating services and we're really meeting the target population," Volek said.

A plan for Missoula will come together, and the city and county are holding a meeting Feb. 22 to kick off the conversation.

The mayor is igniting the torch, and once it's lit, he'll hand it to United Way's Hay Patrick and Councilman Jason Wiener. Hay Patrick and Wiener are co-chairs of the human services subcommittee of the Mayor's Downtown Advisory Commission; United Way offices are typically key players in such efforts.

"We have strong ties to the business community and strong ties to the nonprofit health and human services community, and I think we have strong ties with public officials, public servants," Hay Patrick said.

To reduce the draw on public resources - things like fire and police response and jail time and emergency room visits - any plan will need to address the stereotypical cases, or "the skid-row homeless," per the homelessness needs report.

"I would suggest that the chronic homeless issue has to be dealt with directly," said Garcia, with the federal council. "Nationally it's only about 10 percent of the homeless population, but it accounts for 50 percent of the homelessness assistance resources."

For folks on the other end of the spectrum, the ones teetering on the edge of homelessness, he said prevention is key. It's a stated goal in the Council on Homelessness report called "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," and a federal emergency home loan program is being rolled out to catch people before they land in the street.

"We are trying to step in and prevent these situations from becoming dire," Garcia said.

*****

While the grand scheme is just starting to emerge, some pieces are already clear to stakeholders.

The mayor said one piece Missoula plainly needs is an "entry point," the obvious place homeless people know to go for help. A while back, he said the At Risk Housing Coalition in Missoula named the Salvation Army as the entry point. Somewhere along the way, though, the idea fell by the wayside. This time, an entry point needs to stick.

He's also ready to support a moderate expansion of the Poverello Center. Engen asked for the needs assessment after the Pov announced plans to grow. He asked the Pov to put its plans on hold while he sought cold, hard data of the need in the community.

Having seen the data and talked with Poverello Center managers, Engen said he can support a facility for meals and emergency shelter with 30 more beds than the current home since that's the number routinely turned away - or, in the winter, stuffed into the shelter. The Pov has capacity for 70.

Eran Fowler, director of operations at the shelter, said the Poverello generally concurs with the assessment, and said the need won't go away.

"In a community of this size, there will always be a need to house people in an emergency capacity," Fowler said.

The homeless shelter will await the larger community conversation to see if it widens its mission and picks up other pieces, but Fowler said it must move quickly to replace the aging shelter and soup kitchen. An $800,000 grant requires site selection by September.

She said the Pov hasn't ruled out the nearby former downtown funeral home, but it's not focusing on that location, either. She said the mayor is leading the way, and Poverello board member Kate Gadbow said the shelter wants to work with other organizations so it can continue its mission, but in a better place.

"We kind of need just a new start with the community," Gadbow said.

Another effort picking up steam is opening a chapter of Family Promise in Missoula. Basically, across the nation, groups of churches are binding together to offer families in crisis rooms in their church with support from members.

"Churches have space. They have people who want to help others, but don't necessarily know how to do it," said Nancy Cochran, head of the local group. "They have people who are able to bring meals to others. And it just made sense that this would be a way to lift some stress off a homeless family."

On Friday, the organization submitted documents to become an official 501(c)3. Once enough churches sign on to be part of the weekly rotation - 13 churches are recommended - the program can help roughly 12 to 14 people at a time.

Cochran hopes to begin in October: "These families exist whether we exist or not. They're in need."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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