Missoula County Commissioners aren’t going to donate any money to the Salvation Army for its warming center at this time, noting that while this is being talked about as an “emergency,” it’s not.
Commissioner Cola Rowley said while she appreciates the nonprofit is stepping up to provide overnight shelter this winter for Missoula’s homeless, the need for a warming center was known about long before the realization in October that no one would offer the service this winter.
“Bringing this to us as an emergency is not fair and is poor planning,” Rowley told Salvation Army Capt. Josh Boyd on Wednesday. “I’m not sure why the community’s poor planning is considered the taxpayers’ emergency. This could have been addressed months and months ago, if not years ago.
“The county has been excluded from this process until you want money, and that’s not OK.”
Both Rowley and Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said they didn’t want to appear heartless, but the county’s Community Assistance Fund, which is a safety net to meet basic human services, has an application process that wasn’t followed in this case. Rowley noted that the Salvation Army had applied and received funding for two other projects this year.
“I’m extremely frustrated that we are here today being asked to fund this,” Rowley added.
Commissioner Jean Curtiss was absent from the meeting.
So far, the Salvation Army has raised through private donations about $39,000 of the $50,000 it needs to run the warming center through March 31, Boyd said. He expects it will open within the next few weeks, once he hires two staff members who can stay there overnight.
The warming center plans to provide space for about 40 people, but is preparing for the possibility of serving more. It mainly serves individuals, but sometimes also provides space for families.
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, whose overnight warming center was open from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. In March, the mission was notified that it wasn't in compliance with a city ordinance that stated homeless shelters had to be at least 350 feet from a housing development. The Salvation Army also fell under that provision, so the two organizations started working in May with city staff, the Pov, and Providence-St. Patrick Hospital to look at options.
When a resolution hadn’t been reached by late October, the City Council was notified in mid-November that an emergency ordinance was needed to allow the Salvation Army to operate the temporary winter warming center. That was approved after during a special meeting on Nov. 23.
Eran Pehan, the city’s director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, said the coalition working on the warming center initially included about 50 organizations, but they should have gotten more input from the county. When asked by Rowley, Pehan said the city hadn’t contributed any money to the shelter, but Mayor Jon Engen was actively soliciting donations from private parties.
Pehan added that the warming center is part of a larger need to come up with a long-term plan to provide this service. They weren’t able to come up with a solution for this season, and probably won’t have one next year either.
“It’s important that we be candid. Even with a winter warming center in place we can’t serve everyone on the streets, so in that sense it is an emergency,” Pehan said. “That will continue until we can build out the system.”
Strohmaier suggested that the Salvation Army continue with its fundraising effort, noting that it’s raised the bulk of the money in just two weeks. If it’s unsuccessful, he recommended the nonprofit touch base with county officials to see how much funding may be available.
Boyd agreed that was fair.
“We’re just exploring all options that are available to us right now,” Boyd said. “We will revisit at a future date. Maybe we will not need to; maybe we’ll get all the funds we need.”
Amy Allison Thompson, the executive director of the Poverello Center, said it’s important to get something in place soon.
“Every night we are turning people away,” she said. “Tonight it’s getting down to 9 degrees — that’s deadly cold. I’m glad that the Salvation Army is making this happen. It seemed impossible a few weeks ago.”