A new coalition of 35 different organizations in Missoula has come together to provide a broad array of services to the most vulnerable people in the community.
The Missoula Community Action Alliance, a growing network of faith organizations, labor unions, nonprofits and social agencies has already created a neighborhood network for people needing help with everything from food, housing and job insecurity to mental health issues.
Casey Dunning of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative said the group represents about 5,000 Missoula community members. Partners include the Missoula Food Bank, Partnership Health Center, All Nations Health Center (formerly called the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center), the North Missoula Community Development Corporation and the Missoula City-County Health Department.
"The purpose of it is to work through these different organizations and institutions to connect everyday people as citizen leaders to help bridge new relationships across class, race and ideological divides that are in Missoula," he said. "And to better equip everyday people to have a strong and effective role in shaping public policy, shaping structural things and creating the landscape of how we operate the community."
The group has already gotten 80 volunteers to staff a hotline (that can be reached at 406-219-1843) for people needing food and basic necessities driven to them. They've organized faith communities to provide space for emergency child care centers or to provide shelter to those experiencing homelessness. They've also created food box pick-up sites in coordination with the food bank at neighborhood locations for those without transportation.
They've also set their sights on other issues.
"Right now the big problem areas that we've understood are emerging difficulties with housing insecurity, specifically related to people in relationships with landlords," Dunning said. "And as we reopen Missoula, frontline workers are being asked to go back to work and there's wariness around that and confusion about what that does to unemployment (benefits) and safety on the job site."
The coalition is also focusing on mental heath and how to mitigate social isolation.
Sam Duncan is a community organizer with the North Missoula Community Development Corporation and is also involved with the Alliance. They are part of a group that put signs all over neighborhoods in Missoula letting people know a number to call if they need help with anything.
"We have 30 block leaders, everyday folks from neighborhoods stepping up," Duncan said. "Instead of a city-wide model, this is a neighborhood model. More than anything, it's making sure you don't feel alone and that you're part of a meaningful community."
The advantage of the neighborhood community action model is that people know each other, Duncan explained. For instance, a volunteer in the Westside knows if there's an elderly person in the apartment complex down the street who can't drive and might need assistance with groceries.
In the Northside and Westside, volunteers have given out seeds and dirt to 80 Lowell School students and provided free internet to 18 families who were previously unable to participate in distance learning with their peers. They've also arranged distribution of food and essential items and are helping to shape recommendations for the city's phased reopening by prioritizing the voices of low-income families and workers. In fact, the little neighborhood organization even has its own name, the Northside/Westside CREW (Community Rising for Equity and Wellbeing).
"People should not have to live under threat of foreclosure or eviction," Duncan said in an email to the entire neighborhood. "(People) should not be pressured to return to a low-wage, high-risk job before they feel safe to do so. Should not be isolated and unable to access resources and education because they cannot afford an internet bill. Not now, not ever."
Rebecca Pettit, a leader in the Missoula Community Action Alliance and director of community engagement at the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, said the beauty of the new Coalition is that it includes diverse voices. They brought everyone together to come up with the name, which is emblematic of how the organization will operate going forward.
"It was important to us that we had as many of our leaders as possible participating in the naming to create an even deeper sense of ownership in the organization," she said.
The Missoula Area Central Labor Council is also involved.
"Having leaders of labor unions connected to community organizations, faith organizations, neighborhoods and citizen leaders made advocating for lower-wage workers and all working families during this crisis an aligned and community-wide effort," said Derek Hitt, president of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council.
He said he's been impressed with the strength of the organizing techniques he's seen so far.
The Alliance is currently focusing its outreach towards frontline workers, people struggling with housing, struggling parents, people of color, queer community members, the immuno-compromised, the elderly and formerly incarcerated people.
"It has been so exciting for me to see church people working with nonprofits and county government to respond to the COVID crisis with an outpouring of time, shared effort and collective ingenuity," said Rev. John Lund of Emmaus Campus Ministry.
Those who would like to learn what it would take to reach out to potentially vulnerable people and connect with and support them, email Zeke Campfield, the director of the Housing Advocate Network, at email@example.com or call 406-207-8228. Those wanting to be involved in the neighborhood networks can email Stacey Seabrasse at firstname.lastname@example.org.