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Union Gospel Mission transient file

A client of the Union Gospel Mission waits outside last winter until the doors open for lunch.

An emergency ordinance under consideration will allow Missoula’s Salvation Army to operate a temporary winter warming center for the homeless.

On Wednesday, the city’s Land Use and Planning Committee members were told they had to act quickly on the emergency ordinance, and set a special public hearing for 3 p.m. Nov. 23 — the day after Thanksgiving — in order to open the warming center as soon as possible.

The City Council will have to pass an “interim urgency zoning measure” to allow the warming center at the Salvation Army’s facility at 355 S. Russell St. The emergency measures note that “Significant concern exists as it pertains to the very limited supply of emergency shelter beds for Missoula’s homeless residents in periods of extreme cold weather this winter season.”

If approved, the ordinance would be in effect immediately after the Nov. 23 meeting, and last until April 1. Already this week, nighttime temperatures are hovering in the teens and 20s. In November 2017, a transient died of hypothermia near the Northside pedestrian footbridge when the low temperature was in the 20s and 30s.

Montana’s Point in Time Survey identified 293 homeless individuals in Missoula. Last winter, the Poverello Center hit a record number of people needing shelter, and capped its overnight capacity at 175 people.

For the past two years, the overflow went to the Union Gospel Mission of Missoula’s warming center on Toole Avenue, which was open from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., according to Don Evans, the UGM executive director. He said they were notified in March by the Missoula Fire Department that they weren’t in compliance with a city ordinance that stated homeless shelters had to be at least 350 feet from a housing development.

Evans said the Salvation Army also was notified that same day that they were violating the city ordinance involving the distance from residences, and couldn’t operate the shelter there, either. So UGM and the Salvation Army started working with city staff, the Pov, and Providence-St. Patrick Hospital to look at options.

“I started a conversation with the city and others in May this year,” Evans said. “We had some meetings — the last one was with the Salvation Army — and it was based on the fact that last year we moved the warming center from 506 Toole St. [sic] to the Salvation Army at the end of the season to try to pick up more people because the Pov was limiting their numbers.”

Evans said he was told the mission and Salvation Army needed to undertake a lengthy process that included a $1,000 application fee to try to get a conditional use permit, and there weren’t any guarantees the council would approve it. The last meeting he attended on the subject was on Oct. 2.

He wasn’t notified about Wednesday’s meeting and was surprised to hear about the emergency zoning effort, noting that the Salvation Army’s staff of three doesn’t have the experience to run the warming center alone.

“We have policies and procedures; we wanted to do it in a more efficient way with the Salvation Army. They have a building that’s a nice solution for people coming in off the streets, and we were prepared to do that,” Evans said. “But wherever the miscommunication was — whether it was the city getting involved or the city waiting for us to get the permit — this shouldn’t have been done last minute. We started the conversation in May.”

Theresa Williams, the city’s Reaching Home Coordinator, said they’re still working through some details with the Salvation Army, but would provide a plan of operations “shortly.” She said they still need to hire and train staff members, and secure volunteers, but hope to be operational immediately following the passage of the ordinance.

“We’re trying to mitigate any impact to nearby neighbors,” Williams added.

Josh Boyd, a captain with Missoula’s Salvation Army, didn’t return a phone call seeking more information on the situation. He also didn’t comment at the meeting, other than to say “we’ll try” when asked by the City Council if his organization would be able to pull something together.

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