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They work a job for their income: 42 percent.

They have some college education or a graduate degree: 46 percent.

They have a top reason for not using services in Missoula: "Someone needs it more than I do."

Who are they? People in Missoula who have been homeless sometime in the last three years. In other words, not the stereotypical drunk on the corner, though those cases are there, too. They're considered the "chronic" homeless, and make up some 11 percent of people considered homeless.

Those statistics are part of the findings in the "Homelessness and Housing Instability in Missoula Needs Assessment 2010" report requested by Mayor John Engen and presented Wednesday to a Missoula City Council committee.

Engen said the report is a stepping stone toward a larger strategy to end homelessness in Missoula. The study offers plenty of numbers, even some myth busters, but the mayor sees a narrative in those figures.

"For me, it's probably less about the data and more about the compelling and I think poignant notion that if you are homeless, you don't cease to be a human being, and you don't cease to have dreams and aspirations and ultimately the really simple hope that you have a safe, warm comfortable place to call home," Engen said. "And homeless people want to have a home."

The report puts a number on that desire as well: "Of the 205 respondents living in temporary housing and outside, almost 89 percent were interested in finding permanent housing."

One big barrier is the gap between what people can afford to pay for rent and what it actually costs in Missoula. At the meeting, report author Maxine Jacobson, with Praxis - Building Knowledge for Action, said the median price of a two-bedroom apartment here is $700. But monthly income for 78 percent of the respondents fell below that median.

What they need? The top answers in the survey were ongoing assistance, 56.6 percent; first and last month's rent and deposit, 54.9 percent; a job or a better paying job, 48.9 percent; and a bus voucher, 36.8 percent.

***

Jacobson also presented other points from the study to the council Administration and Finance Committee. Here are some highlights from the report and her review:

The number of people living outdoors (mid-November) accounts for 34.5 percent of respondents.

Some 48 percent "experienced extremely disrupted lives, marked by uncertainty about where to live day-to-day."

The most common places respondents stayed during the 30-day period prior to the survey were at the Poverello, outside, and with friends or family.

85 percent of those sampled were considered homeless at the time of the survey.

50 percent had experienced one or two episodes of homelessness in the past three years; 29 percent had been homeless continuously.

"Almost half of the respondents were living in Missoula's permanent housing when they experienced their first episode of homelessness. These were more likely to be women and families with children." The report elaborates on this point later: "This key finding challenges an assumption that homeless people in Missoula come from somewhere else ... These people were living in Missoula when they left permanent housing for a number of possible reasons including low wages, eviction, domestic abuse, and, first and foremost, because they simply could not afford rent or were unable to make their mortgage payment."

Some 71 percent of those surveyed reported having a monthly income. Of those, 42 percent earned income through full- or part-time employment. Others had income from Social Security Disability, supplemental Social Security, family or friends, panhandling, unemployment benefits and veterans pensions.

***

The mayor requested the study after hearing many conversations about "the problem, maybe even the tragedy" of homelessness in Missoula, and being asked to support an expansion of the Poverello Center. He asked the Pov to put its plans on hold because he wanted the community to have "an empirical understanding" of the problem to help create a broad solution for Missoula.

Now, Engen said the aim is to build onto this study and form a 10-year plan to "end" homelessness in Missoula, an "audacious goal," but one he said other communities are embarking on.

"I believe personally that there is a moral imperative for us to help folks in need find safe, decent, clean shelter," the mayor said. "From a public policy standpoint, I think that decisions we make to invest in ending homelessness in a permanent way save us money across the board in many other ways."

A look at costs, such as for police response and emergency room visits, was one next step mentioned at the meeting.

The study cost $16,000, paid for by the city of Missoula, Missoula County, Missoula Housing Authority and the Western Montana Mental Health Center, according to the city. United Way provided leadership and in-kind support for the undertaking.

In all, 240 people participated in the survey administered by trained volunteers after a pilot version of the survey. Some 35 questions were asked around Missoula including outside downtown; the trail system; the Poverello Center; Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission; Missoula Public Library; WORD; Missoula Food Bank; Western Montana Mental Health Center shelters; YWCA Gateway Center; and Partnership Health Center.

The study is available with this story at Missoulian.com.

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

 

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