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Warming shelter file

A client of the Union Gospel Mission waited outside last winter until the doors opened for lunch.

An emergency meeting of the Missoula City Council approved an ordinance allowing the Salvation Army to operate a warming center this winter.

The decision capped months of policy changes and permitting issues involving the city and some of the charities that serve the homeless. Last year, the Poverello Center capped its overnight capacity at 175, sending about 20 to 40 people elsewhere for warmth every night.

The Union Gospel Mission had previously absorbed the Pov’s overflow. But in March, the Missoula Fire Department informed the Mission that they were in violation of a city ordinance mandating at least 350 feet of distance between homeless shelters and housing. According to the ordinance, the Gospel Mission’s Toole Avenue location would also “need significant modification to meet the requirements set forth in the ordinance.”

For the last few weeks of this past winter, the Salvation Army hosted Union Gospel Mission’s warming center at its Russell Street facility. “It just seemed to work well,” said Captain Josh Boyd.

But the facility’s location also placed it afoul of Missoula’s zoning ordinance. Operating a shelter this year would have required a conditional-use permit, and a long, costly application process.

The approved ordinance waives these requirements, allowing the center to begin operation immediately. It will remain in effect until April 1.

“I'm very pleased and very excited to see how much support we had from the community, as well as from the City Council, and we're just really excited to move forward with this,” Boyd said after the ordinance passed with support of all seven council members present: Julie Armstrong, Heather Harp, Julie Merritt, Jordan Hess, Heidi West, Gwen Jones and Mirtha Becerra.

But while the Salvation Army now has permission to run a warming center, it still needs the money. Boyd told the council that the nonprofit has raised about half of the $50,000 necessary to staff the warming center throughout the season, and that it’s been directed by its headquarters not to launch the service until it has all the funding in hand.

Asked by Armstrong and Mayor John Engen whether the city could contribute funds to the service, Eran Pehan, director of Missoula's Office of Housing and Community Development, explained that “we have really looked extensively at what resources we have internally. Unfortunately, all of our funds in our division are federal grant funds that follow specific allocation cycles that become difficult.”

The ordinance states that the city will consider alternative strategies to house the homeless during the winter, and both Pehan and Boyd aim to better plan for funding a warming shelter next year, to avoid this kind of last-minute situation.

But for now, their focus is to get the warming center up and running as soon as possible. To that end, Harp urged Missoulians to contribute.

“This is a time of crisis that we need to all step up, pitch in what we can, because this is critical to saving lives.”

Boyd said that those who would like to support the warming center should visit the Salvation Army’s facility at 355 S. Russell St., where they can designate a donation specifically for this project.

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