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Amy Allison Thompson, director of the Poverello Center in Missoula, says the pace at the homeless shelter this time of year can be both "challenging and beautiful. You're working with people at some of the most challenging moments of their lives," she says. "They've just lost their home. It's the holidays and it's cold. They're hungry."

It’s 11 a.m. in the Poverello Center and Amy Allison Thompson recalls how her mother used to describe the career of nursing: “It’s like being a flaming-arrow catcher.”

Thompson has been the director of Missoula’s primary homeless support program for two and a half years. On a Friday 12 days before Christmas, the scene around the Pov’s front desk brought Thompson’s description to life. A line of people snaked from the cafeteria through the lobby and out the back door as people waited for some of the 400 to 500 hot meals served each day. One man, on his way to a job, stopped by the desk to take a sack lunch.

“It’s probably a sandwich, a baked good and a piece of fruit,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of PB&J going on today. We get a ton of baked goods through the grocery rescue program. We took in about half a million pounds of food that way last year.”

Another man comes up to the desk: “Do you have a hat I could have?”

Thompson turns to a box of winter gear and finds a green watch cap. The man asks if there’s a black one.

“Can’t pick the color,” Thompson tells him. The man shrugs: “Is it warm?”

The man puts the green cap on his head and leaves as a woman comes up with two sacks. “I’ve got Christmas presents,” she says. Thompson thanks the woman and sets the bags in an office behind the counter. The regular front-desk staff are in a workshop on mental health assessment, so Thompson and Poverello development director Jesse Jaeger are filling in.

“We have a pretty high staff burnout level,” Thompson said. “You’re working with people at some of the most challenging moments of their lives. They’ve just lost their home. It’s the holidays and it's cold. They’re hungry.”

Someone at the desk asks how much it costs to do a load of laundry. Thompson answers: $1.

“If you’re not working in here, it’s hard to understand what we’re doing,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of intense need. I’ve got a board to answer to, and neighbors who need solutions to what’s going on around here. We’ve got to keep the lights on, and the electricity bill in this place is very big, as you can imagine. We’ve got to keep an eye on the finances and donors.”

Thompson worked at the Pov from 2009 to 2011 in its Joseph Residence Program. She managed a behavioral health program in Libby’s Northwest Community Health Center for a couple years. Then she owned a psychotherapy practice in Great Falls and led the National Association of Social Workers Montana chapter before returning to Missoula in 2016.

A client heads out the door. Thompson hands him a pair of socks. Jaeger says the Poverello can’t give away enough warm socks in December.

“The holidays are when we see our highest numbers,” Thompson said. “We’re having all these conversations, taking people on tours, working with volunteers. It’s challenging and beautiful. But we have needs throughout the year. We need volunteers and donations in summer, too.”

A woman comes up to the desk to hand Thompson a check and quietly leaves. Jaeger tucks a plastic bag of soap, hand warmers and snacks into a cold-weather sleeping bag with the store tags still attached.

“We’re really feeling the loss of case management,” Thompson said, referring to the state budget cuts that yanked $30.5 million from the Department of Public Health and Human Services. “Our numbers increased about 25 percent. People who were in housing and had case managers helping them started losing their housing as soon as they lost the help. It’s really challenging to keep up with all of that need.”

A man comes in with a bag of stuff he found in the parking lot. He asks Thompson to put it in the lost and found. It’s 11:15 a.m. on a Friday in the Missoula Poverello Center, 12 days before Christmas.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.