Northside neighbors and others asked the Poverello Center on Wednesday to delay its plan to open a drop-in center near the bike-pedestrian bridge. They also chided the nonprofit's leaders for failing to talk with residents before they made a decision.
"That's a terrible mistake and you should be ashamed of yourselves," said neighbor Nancy Wilson.
Poverello Center executive director Ellie Hill announced last week the nonprofit's plans to open a satellite day center in August. The Pov would offer more services there, be open during the day and allow people under the influence of alcohol.
The news was followed by an outcry. Neighbors who had not been informed earlier pummeled the mayor's office and Office of Neighborhoods with questions. Officials from other social service agencies said the director worked alone instead of collaborating with other providers, and they said the center will duplicate services that already exist.
After the objections, Mayor John Engen called a meeting between Pov leaders and concerned residents. He moderated Wednesday night's gathering at the Stensrud Building but said the city was not involved in the project.
Dru Carr, with the neighborhood leadership, thanked the mayor for holding the meeting and said there is no doubt the Poverello provides essential services in Missoula. But he asked the Pov to put the brakes on the project.
"A lot of people in the neighborhoods felt they weren't consulted and never heard," Carr said.
Several of the roughly 60 people who attended the meeting said they want a safe neighborhood. The area already houses the Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission and is scarred from carrying that burden. The Pov facility is planned for the same building at 506 Toole Ave.
Lori Parr Campbell works out of her home and said she cannot comfortably work in her studio at night. She's found strangers standing at her door, trapping her inside.
"I don't think putting it in the neighborhood is an answer," Campbell said.
She also said she has sympathy for people who are homeless because an uncle of hers, who was an alcoholic and veteran, died on the streets. If someone does plan to open such a center, she said, they should visit with neighbors first.
"You damn well better knock on my door and ask me what I think," she said.
Grace Decker said she wasn't opposed to opening a drop-in center elsewhere in the Northside or Westside. But putting the center near the Northside bicycle-pedestrian bridge would heighten conflicts between commuters and people at the drop-in.
At the meeting, Hill agreed the gathering was the first in what would be many conversations about the drop-in center.
She also said she "absolutely" would agree to a delay and took responsibility for not talking with neighbors earlier. The reason the Pov hadn't advised neighbors of the proposal was the board had only approved the move last Tuesday and the Pov had to move quickly, she said.
A Gold Dust resident said he did not believe the Pov would actually slow its plans to open the center.
The plan also has raised concerns among social service providers who talked before the meeting. They question which population the center will target and say the plan duplicates services others already offer.
They also say the Pov has operated in a vacuum without engaging other providers.
The grant proposal submitted to the state portrays Missoula's support for the project as overwhelming: "The Poverello Center's proposed Drop-in Center has powerful and immense community and stakeholder support."
But leaders and agencies portrayed as collaborators in the proposal never saw it before the Pov submitted it, said Jim Morton, executive director of the Human Resource Council.
He also said the Pov director and board presented the center as part of the community's solution to homelessness and other related problems, but failed to engage other providers.
"Why did none of us see the damn grant before it was submitted? That goes back to management," Morton said.
While he questioned the management, he said the Poverello provides much-needed services in Missoula.
The grant proposal also indicates that a Panhandling Working Group convened by the mayor's office and Missoula Police Department supports the Poverello's effort to create a drop-in center.
"The Mayor of Missoula has recently convened a Panhandling and Transient Task Force. Local police, the Poverello Center, and community business leaders are studying panhandling, transients and the subsequent inherent crime in the downtown urban core. Summarily, the Pov's ability to appropriately serve mentally ill and co-occurring substance abuse individuals has been identified as an urgent and unmet community need," the grant proposal reads.
City communications director Ginny Merriam, who led the working group, praised Hill's initiative in seeing a need and applying for a grant. However, she did not agree with the interpretation in the grant proposal of the working group's assessment.
"That sounds a little bit more specific than it was," Merriam said. "We had a general conversation about the fact that many of the people who are living outdoors, downtown and sometimes doing aggressive panhandling are people who cannot be served at the Pov."
Some also wonder which homeless population the Pov intends to serve.
At the meeting, Kate Ybarra said the media muddied the waters by lumping together a number of separate issues. There are people who drink downtown, who are homeless, who have mental illnesses, who panhandle, and who perform illegal acts. But they're not necessarily related.
The homeless population is generally made up of panhandlers and people who are mentally ill, said Daniel Ladd, mental health regional planner with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Ladd said for the most part, those two populations don't overlap, but he doesn't know Missoula's specific demographic. He said the department would not have funded a drop-in center targeting panhandlers because the Legislature hasn't authorized money be spent that way. The money was marked for mental health programs.
The Pov must spend some $58,000 of its $120,000 grant from the state by the end of June or risk losing the money, he said.
The Pov already hired a program director for the center. The grant says individuals with mental illness and problems with substance abuse will receive help from mental health professionals there.
The grant proposal says the center will not duplicate services, but others say Missoula 3:16 and the Salvation Army are already open during the day. The Army's Maj. Eddie Patterson said if a similar program opens, it should open in a different place.
"Some people believe, first of all, that it is a duplication of services," Patterson said.
Missoula 3:16's Pam Herbst could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
When Hill announced the Pov's plan last week, she said the Pov had secured a lease for a portion of 506 Toole Ave. When asked Wednesday, however, she agreed the parties have not signed a lease and are scheduled to do so and make a payment Monday.
She said at the time, she had a letter of understanding in hand that solidified the deal.
"I felt like we had secured a lease. Mr. (Jim) Caras is in agreement with everything," Hill said.
She also said she did not intend to be misleading: "I wasn't trying to purposefully misrepresent anything."
Hill said the project has been well-received everywhere she has turned and she felt like she had a green light to open the center.
"I didn't imagine that there would be naysayers in the service community because it has been so well-supported in the community at large," Hill said.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262 or at email@example.com.