To truly end homelessness sounds like a high aspiration.

"Ending homelessness I think is a political statement. Impacting homelessness is us being practical," said Brenda Beckett, community development manager in the city of Billings.

With the recent release of a homelessness needs assessment in Missoula, the community is embarking on a plan to end homelessness. Billings already developed a strategy to put the hurt on the problem, and leaders on the front here want a plan for Missoula as well.

"If you're hungry in Missoula, you get food," said Councilman Jason Wiener. "And there's just no reason it can't be the same way when it comes to shelter. We just have to put in the time and the effort and the money."

Some parts of the endeavor are free of cost, too.

Maxine Jacobson, who authored "Homelessness and Housing Instability in Missoula," said the national trend shows more and more families in the past decade slipping into homelessness. But many people still associate homelessness only with the person who is drunk and hollering on a street corner.

"I think that's something we can continue to do on a daily basis, is challenge the assumption that the person downtown represents homelessness. We can think more broadly about the picture," Jacobson said.

Another assumption she said must be debunked is that people who use services like doing so. People who work in the field understand that those who accept services wish they didn't need them.

"It's embarrassing to go in and ask for help, although I do know there's a lot of people who think people just love living off the dole. But it hasn't been my experience at all. To see people say that, it's actually quite the opposite. We're not any different than the people who are homeless in terms of how we feel about things, about permanent housing, about taking care of our families," Jacobson said.

The largest population of homeless families in Montana is in Missoula, according to a 2010 Montana Homeless Survey. And YWCA director Cindy Weese said that's been the case every year since 2006, with the exception of one.

"I think it's interesting to note that in 2007, Missoula recorded 97 homeless families, and since that time the number has steadily increased to today's total, which is nearly double the 2007 figure," Weese said in an e-mail.

It's 171.

But the needs assessment - and guides to ending it like the one from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness - make the problem look surmountable.

"I feel like, here's a glimmer of making a dent in a problem that seems intractable," Wiener said. "That's really fulfilling work, so I'm looking forward to getting to it."

Mayor John Engen commissioned the study and is asking Wiener and United Way Chief Executive Officer Susan Hay Patrick to lead the ensuing effort. Wiener and Patrick serve as co-chairs on the human services subcommittee of the Mayor's Downtown Advisory Commission.

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In Billings, Beckett led the initiative, and she said many people bought into the plan because the process was as inclusive as possible and brought in as many people as possible, "especially the critics." The plan also assigns individuals - by name - to tasks.

"You can write the best plan in the world. Until you write an action plan and keep people accountable by name, then nothing happens," Beckett said.

The initiative started in 2006 with the Billings mayor's committee on homelessness. Beckett said some people didn't believe it was a problem at first, so it took a while to form a group that was forward moving.

Along the way, funding for administrative tasks was a challenge. Beckett said she can't even fathom the cost of the plan, having spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing and interviewing and rewriting and meeting and talking with an army of social service providers.

In October 2009, the council in Billings adopted the plan, but not until the process had been described as herding cats.

"It's really like herding superheros. There are all these amazing people who work in this field and my biggest hope is we gave them a platform so they can carry out their duties and do it justice," Beckett said.

The measure of success is hard to come by, though. Beckett can't put a number on the effect the plan has had on homelessness in her city, in part she said because the plunge in the economy made calculations difficult.

But anecdotally, she said, the community support is clear. Last year while the nation still reeled from the recession, Billings passed a three-mill tax levy to support people who are in crisis, including many who are homeless.

"In today's day and age, it's hard to get a mill levy passed. So that was one of the big surprises," Beckett said.

Come Tuesday's meeting in Missoula, Wiener said he'd like people to turn up with ideas to reduce harm: "Where's the low-hanging fruit as far as people are concerned? What's the easiest way for us to get families bridged to a new stable situation? What's the best way for us to deal with the recalcitrant folks who are very visible?"

One certain step he wants to see taken in Missoula is a cost assessment, a measure of the status quo for things like uncompensated ambulance rides and police calls and hotel room vouchers.

Such a report will allow stakeholders to know if changes - for better coordination or redirection of missions - are effective. Said Wiener: "We want to measure that we're having an impact. This is really about what a 10-year plan does."

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

 

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