Two incidents last week affected those who deal with Missoula's homeless population — the death of a 45-year-old man in a fight at the Poverello Center, and newly released data showing Missoula housing prices reached a record high last year.
That left staff at the Pov coping both with the loss, and the fact that more people than ever face precarious housing situations.
Despite a small army of organizations working to put people on a path toward stable housing, there will always be a need for more resources in mental health and substance abuse, according to those who work on the ground with this population. Statewide, Missoula’s population has the highest percentage of people without stable housing, according to the 2019 Montana Homeless Point in Time Survey. That’s tethered to Missoula’s other problem, the immense stratification of housing costs and wages, said Poverello Center Director Amy Allison Thompson.
Sean Stevenson, 45, who'd been staying at the Poverello for a few months died Sunday, Jan. 5, after an altercation with another man there. No charges have been filed. The man initially arrested has been released and law enforcement is awaiting a medical examiner’s report. (See related story.)
Allison Thompson declined to comment on the incident at the Poverello, as the investigation is ongoing, but said both men were well-known to the staff.
This week, however, Allison Thompson said staff has been hard at work reviewing safety measures. Things already in place include security cameras, key-card locks on certain wings of the building and staff trained in de-escalation techniques.
Since October, the Pov has had in place a behavior-based policy, lowering the barrier of its sobriety requirement as winter approached. It’s an evidence-based contributor toward putting people into the process of obtaining stable housing, Allison Thompson said. But it's also an opportunity to bring more people in from the cold.
“The things we’ve done in that time — sit down, staff debriefing — but also walking through all the steps that we’re taking to keep this a safe place for everyone seeking shelter. Our goal is to make sure that everyone is safe here, that is our primary goal,” Allison Thompson said.
The man who engaged with Stevenson appeared to be intoxicated in some manner when police arrived to the Poverello on Jan. 3, according to search warrant documents in Missoula District Court. But Allison Thompson said that "our staff are very much in support of this model. It’s important that we make sure people have a warm place to be to survive."
Likewise, the Poverello staff holds open meetings with guests to gauge their mood.
"Overall, I think it's going well," Allison Thompson said of the reaction from guests on the behavior-based policy.
Still, the policy is set to expire in March, Allison Thompson said. That's to keep the client-to-staff ratio at a level that allows staff to work directly with clients on attaining stable housing.
"We need the community to help us figure out this bigger picture of where people can have an affordable place to live and how we can pay folks a wage that's livable for this community," said Jesse Jaeger, director of development and advocacy at the Poverello.
The 2019 Montana Homeless Point in Time Survey shows 260 homeless individuals in Missoula, 26% of the total 1,009 Montanans who are homeless as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The survey findings have been criticized previously because the data are based on outreach.
Jaeger said 40% of people staying at the Pov have a job or some other source of income. It's a crisis in affordability that keeps people in need of shelter, he said. In Missoula, the median home sales price has soared from $200,500 in 2010 to $315,000 last year. When state officials scaled back funding for mental health services in 2016 due to a massive budget shortfall unforeseen by the 2015 Legislature, Allison Thompson said the Pov saw a 20% increase in people in need of services.
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Capacity at Missoula shelters is a looming question, but affordable housing is the solution-based thinking at play in Missoula. Dwellings like the Cornerstone Apartments and the Villagio, the largest affordable housing project in Montana history, are on track to put more than 200 affordable units in the city. Both projects, still in the works, are a part of the city of Missoula’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which kicked off in 2011.
And shovels have already cut dirt at the site of the Meadowlark project, an effort by the YWCA and Missoula Interfaith Collaborative. In fact, crews from Sirius Construction Inc., the general contractor, last week were working away at the underground parking garage, which will sit below three stories of administrative offices, counseling rooms and kitchens for the 44 dwelling units in the building.
"We feel like it can't open soon enough," YWCA Missoula Executive Director Cindy Weese said Friday. "We have 10 families on our waiting list last night. It's just desperately needed."
The Meadowlark project is a family housing endeavor, and would not have made any difference in the fight at the Poverello Center that ended one man’s life. But it’s possible, said Interim Police Chief Mike Colyer, that confrontation could have happened anywhere. He doesn’t see the incident as a sign that the strain on Missoula’s resources has reached a tipping point.
“To me, I don’t feel like its crisis level. It’s busy, and there’s always room for more resources,” he said.
But there are also the unseen issues, Colyer noted.
“A lot of the common experiences that people have that are homeless, a lot of things they’re battling with is mental health and substance abuse. The things that come along with that, the mental health issue, could be a person whose experiencing suicidal ideations or they could be acting out in a way that people are interpreting as threatening,” he said. “Calls on homeless people often have those types of threads running through them.”
And are city police feeling stretched over the community’s needs in homelessness?
“It’s work, but that's the kind of work we’re in, and we’re all about working with fire and medical, working with the Pov to make this the best for people who need it the most,” Colyer said. “That's what we do.”
Police, emergency medical agencies and fire departments are working shoulder-to-shoulder in addressing the short-term needs for folks experiencing homelessness, explained Jeff Brandt, chief of Missoula City Fire Department. Firefighters are constantly undergoing EMS training to be ready for when they respond to a call for someone experiencing hypothermia, or worse.
"When those folks are outside like that and exposed to the weather, you got dehydration and list of other potential medical problems and emotional problems they're dealing with," Brandt said. "Those are all exacerbated by those elements and not having a stable environment."
Brandt points to the strong partnerships that are underway to develop solutions. There's the Salvation Army's winter shelter, in place for the first time this winter, that helps with overflow from the Poverello, funded in part by the city of Missoula, Missoula County, Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center. Yet, the need remains larger than the resources at hand.
"There's not enough resources, or money behind those resources to be able to meet the needs of what's going on," Brandt said. "It definitely strains our first responders with police, fire and medical, and there are other calls for service going on all around the city."
For staff at the Pov, it all circles back to housing.
"The solution to homelessness is housing," Allison Thompson said. "Period."