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Missoula's shelters for those without housing see big surge in utilization

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Homeless shelter 02

The Poverello Center homeless shelter operates the Johnson Street Emergency Winter Shelter.

The number of “nights stayed” at Missoula’s two homeless shelters almost doubled from 2020 to 2021, from 33,000 nights to a whopping 65,000.

A total of 1,039 individuals used emergency shelter in Missoula in 2021, which is 200 more people than the previous year, even though the Poverello Center has only been at half capacity since March of 2020 due to COVID.

The statistics come from the Poverello Center's annual report, which showed that 88,994 meals were served to over 1,200 people. More than 27,500 sack lunches were provided, and its Food Rescue Truck saved 424,474 pounds of food from landfills.

Almost 400 volunteers donated more than 15,000 volunteer hours, adding up to almost two years' worth of volunteering.

"The capacity volunteers bring to food programs, shelter services and beyond is insurmountable and the Pov is so grateful for each of our supporters' contributions," said Sarah Penix, the communications coordinator for the nonprofit.

Penix said the Johnson Street Emergency Winter Shelter’s opening in October of 2021 was crucial and literally saved lives. It was that facility that was mainly responsible for the increase in shelter use.

“It really speaks to the need for lower-barrier emergency shelter, particularly in the winter,” she said. “That’s evident because we haven’t lost anyone to winter weather in two years.”

A variety of factors led to the increase in usage.

"More people are using shelter services now because of increased housing displacement in the Missoula community," Penix explained. "There are countless reasons why an individual may become houseless, but the economic consequences of the pandemic show a greatest impact on folks experiencing poverty."

Penix said the additional shelter capacity helped absorb those who would otherwise be on the streets or in unsanctioned camps.

“I really think that more people were able to access the services because of the lower-barrier extra capacity that we’re able to provide,” she said. “More people have begun experiencing unsheltered houselessness during the pandemic, so getting those folks back into a warm place to stay during the winter nights was very important.”

The city of Missoula contributed $311,000 and Missoula County contributed $100,000 to the shelters. Other partners helped the Poverello Center open and operate the Johnson Street shelter with the help of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and a federal grant. It has a capacity of 150 people and serves hot meals every day, but closes in April every year.

Penix said that because federal COVID relief funds are now gone, the Pov is working to find other ways to fill the funding gap and still fill the “high-end need” for winter shelter. That means that the emergency winter shelter will likely be open again this coming winter, but more funds have to be secured.

Things ran a lot smoother the second winter.

“Anytime we do anything new, the first time there is a huge learning curve between the first and second years,” Penix explained. “A lot of factors kind of went into making it a more successful winter season the second year from my perspective. There were a lot fewer neighborhood complaints, and we actually had better staff retention.”

Penix noted that the city and county’s funding contributions helped a lot.

“We were able to offer hiring bonuses and additional trainings for staff, which made for much higher staff retention than the year before,” she said.

The Pov is in the process of converting the nearby Clark Fork Inn into an expansion of their veterans housing program called Housing Montana Heroes. Right now, a housing relocation specialist is in the process of getting people who are living there now into other apartments by the time the Pov moves in next year. 

The price of homes increased dramatically in the Missoula area after the pandemic hit, with the median home sales price increasing from $350,000 in 2020 to roughly $510,000 in the first quarter of 2022, a 45% increase. There were historically low rental apartment vacancy rates during the pandemic as well, which caused median asking rents to skyrocket.

There's a little relief on the horizon as far as the number of apartments available in Missoula.

According to a recent report from Sterling Commercial Real Estate Advisors, the county is set to double the number of new multifamily apartments going on the market in 2022 compared with 2021.

Last year, 241 new multifamily units were delivered to the market. In 2022, apartment production surged and 165 units were completed as of June 1. Another 250 more units are planned to become available by the end of the year.

"Already, we’re seeing vacancy rise,” said Sterling's lead broker, Matt Mellott. “We’re tracking 2.9% vacancy in quarter two of 2022, up from 2.6% in quarter one. The tides are changing for multifamily developers and apartment seekers in Missoula, though we are still not at a healthy vacancy rate of 4 to 5%.”

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