This winter’s overnight shelter safety net for homeless people is changing in Missoula, leaving a few holes in the webbing.
The city announced Thursday it no longer will extend the evening hours at the Mountain Line Transfer Center for people waiting for the 10 p.m. check-in at the Salvation Army’s overnight shelter. It also is halting the lone after-hours bus from the Transfer Center to the Salvation Army, which are about 1.5 miles apart.
Instead, the Poverello Center will now offer a low-barrier warming shelter for those with no other options, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Salvation Army will push up opening its overnight shelter to 9:30 p.m., and people going to the shelter can take the last Transfer Center bus, which leaves at 8:45 p.m. and runs past a bus stop two blocks from the Poverello Center on Broadway.
But no bus services run that route on Saturday evenings, nor do they operate on Sundays. On weekdays, the bus service will drop people off about 15 minutes before the Salvation Army's overnight shelter opens.
Amy Allison Thompson, the Poverello Center executive director, said the change will make the homeless shelter busier during the day. But an $8,000 grant provided through the Office of Housing and Community Development will allow her office to hire additional temporary staff.
“I expect we’ll have higher numbers during the day, which means more meals and more traffic through the building,” Thompson said. “I believe we’ll be able to accommodate that.
“But there is an absolute gap in this plan that the Poverello Center is concerned about. The lack of transportation will be an issue.”
She added that most people know by 5 p.m. if they’re going to stay at the Poverello Center, which will give them more time to make arrangements to get to the Salvation Army.
The Poverello also will temporarily change its policy as a “dry” shelter. Thompson said people who come to the Poverello in an altered state, whether from drugs, alcohol or other influences, will be taken in as long as they behave themselves.
“Our focus will be purely a behavioral basis; as long as they can manage the communal setting, they’ll be allowed in the building,” Thompson said. “If they have any issues here because of their behavior, they won’t be allowed to stay. So we’ve shifted to focus on behavior.”
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Thompson doesn’t expect the change will impact the number of people staying overnight at the Pov. Since the opening of the Salvation Army’s overnight warming shelter, Thompson said her facility hasn’t reached its 175-bed capacity.
Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, said using the Transfer Center was only meant to be a temporary situation as frigid, below-normal temperatures lingered in Missoula during the past few weeks. She noted that the facility is quite small and can’t accommodate many people, and staffing wasn’t sustainable.
“At the time, we needed an urgent response,” Pehan said. “We’re going to continue to work on filling the emergent need for the next couple of years while we work on long-term plans and housing policy to end homelessness by providing permanent housing solutions.”
A positive aspect of trying to find shelter for people without housing during the frigid weather was the outpouring of community volunteers, many of whom donated food and warm clothing, and spent time helping out at the Transfer Center. Both Pehan and Thompson said they’ll tap into that community as they chart the path forward.
“They made sure people were safe and warm,” Thompson said. “Last year, we just didn’t do anything. This was the first year that people stepped up and collaborated to provide help.”
As another cold blast is forecast for Missoula beginning on Friday, with highs in the teens and 20s and overnight lows remaining in the single digits, Thompson said they might need to re-mobilize those volunteers.
“It was cold and will continue to be cold; Sunday night they’re calling for zero-degree temperatures,” Thompson said.
Jordan Hess, a city councilor and director of transportation at the university, said if the UDASH buses are needed again to provide weekend services, they’ll try to help.
“”We were pretty clear up front that our help was short-term … but if we have a scenario with dangerous temperatures again, we may be able to step up and provide services,” Hess said. “We had great communication through our partners that put that together and we have been standing by to see what they plan for future emergencies.
“I can’t say for certain, but we are absolutely happy to help any way we can.”