As temperatures dipped into the single digits with howling winds pushing the real feel to between 10 and 20 below zero Monday night, a stream of Missoulians pleaded with the City Council to find some way to better protect those without homes during what could be deadly winter weather.
One woman noted that Mayor John Engen said it was the duty of local government to provide the best solution to all of the city’s citizens, but that some who are permanently kicked out of the Salvation Army or the Poverello Center for bad behavior due to addictions or mental illness are still sleeping outside at night.
“When we say it’s our responsibility to provide for all of our citizens, it really means all of them,” she said.
Engen later said that city staff and local nonprofit agencies like the Poverello Center, the Salvation Army, the Union Gospel Mission and others all are working hard to provide safe haven during the bitter cold. He added that the city agreed last week to pay the Poverello Center $8,000 for additional staffing, after the city decided to close the short-term shelter at the Transfer Center on Thursday.
That closure had ripple effects, since the city also decided to stop providing an after-hour bus from the Transfer Center on weekdays, and the University of Montana’s MDash buses also stopped offering the emergency weekend service. Engen said city staff working with the nonprofits were able to close that gap and should be able to continue to do so during the weekends until the weather warms, but that overall a long-term solution is needed.
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“Our 10-year plan calls for a variety of things we are working on those, including what we think is a shelter solution, which will allow folks who are rather challenging to have supervised housing on a regular basis,” Engen said. “It’s two years away … but we’re working on it as fast as we can.”
Many of the other councilors voiced support, with Jordan Hess thanking the mayor for providing context in what is an “incredibly challenging” situation.
But Councilor Julie Armstrong warned that with bitterly cold temperatures forecast for the rest of the week — with highs in the teens and 20s, and lows down to 2 below zero — she’s worried people are going to die from exposure now if they have no place to seek shelter. She asked that the city look at the budgets to see if perhaps they could reallocate funds.
Armstrong pointed to the $25,000 earmarked for a public art statue in the MRL dog park, as well as upcoming overseas trips for city staff and council members, saying she’s open to discussions on how they might find funds to provide shelter. In November 2017, a homeless man in Missoula named Tim Lloyd died after suffering from hypothermia.
“It may not be able to be alleviated with money,” Armstrong said. “We say we think creatively, and maybe we need to think more emotionally when it’s something like this. I know policies are there, but people are dying. I’m open to agenda items for moving those around pretty quickly.”