Even before its move into new digs two weeks ago, the Poverello homeless shelter had tightened up its admission standards.
Now, as winter gets serious, the result is what one homeless advocate calls a life-threatening emergency – one she believes Missoula isn’t willing to address.
“It seems to me the solution is not to house the homeless, it’s to get rid of them when it’s freezing cold,” Mary Alice Overaker said.
That’s an unfair charge, a local coalition of agencies and shelters say.
“People are always going to think places like the Pov didn’t do enough,” said the United Way’s Michael Moore, coordinator of Reaching Home, Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. “The fact is, they’ve fed 100 people and housed 120 people damn near every night. But it’s also true that not everybody wants to be housed, and a lot of people want to be housed under their own conditions.”
The Poverello Center has always been a “dry” facility, with rules forbidding access for those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You also get on the “out” list if you assault a staff member or another client, or make “significant threats of harm,” executive director Eran Fowler Pehan said Monday.
In the past, some exceptions were made under extenuating circumstances, such as extreme weather. Not any more.
“We stopped doing that after last year (2013). We had too many incidents of needing to call police because folks were just too intoxicated to make good choices,” Pehan said. “And we overwhelmingly heard from other residents we were serving that being around people who were under the influence was jeopardizing their hard-won sobriety.”
Overaker, who is retired and lives off Social Security checks in a downtown Missoula apartment, has spent several years lobbying on behalf of the addicted and ill of the streets. She says she knows many of them and tries to educate government entities and, recently, Moore and the Reaching Home committee about their plights.
Overaker criticized the Poverello Center for misplacing priorities in its $5 million shelter and cafeteria on West Broadway, which opened its doors to clients Dec. 22.
“This is my personal take on it, and I have not been there so I’m just surmising. It’s nice and new and fancy and clean and they don’t want the great unwashed,” Overaker said. “Well, it’s their job to take care of the great unwashed.”
Pehan said allowances are still made in cold weather. The Poverello limits stays to 45 days pending an extension by a committee, which can take into account issues such as medical conditions and progress toward goals. Clients don’t pay a thing, but they’re required to do chores to “assume some accountability,” she said.
The shelter has a weather policy that allows access for those with minor violations, such as failing or refusing to do a chore.
“When the temperature drops below 20 degrees or when there’s precipitation, anybody’s allowed to come and stay as long as they’re not on a violation ‘out’ due to violence, or as long as they’re not intoxicated,” Pehan said.
The new shelter has 117 beds, up from 68 in the old one downtown on Ryman Street. Pehan said in the two wintry weeks since the new Pov opened, the overnight crowd has fluctuated between 100 to 120 clients. That’s typical for the wintertime.
Diane Keefauver doesn’t view the admissions crackdown in as strong of terms as Overaker does, but she knows it’s a concern on the streets.
Keefauver is the “Chicken Lady” for Food Not Bombs, the small knot of volunteers who for some six years, snow or shine, have put on a feed at the Doughboy Statue at the Missoula County Courthouse each Sunday evening.
“We have a lot of people there who stay at the Pov, and we have been told repeatedly by people that they have not been let into the Pov. They turned them away, even when it was (under) 20 degrees outside,” Keefauver said.
There are temporary housing alternatives to the Poverello, said Moore, and the shelter does a good job of referring people to providing agencies. But resources are an issue for everybody.
“Unfortunately, we’re not a community where if you get kicked out of the Pov, we have some guy there with a transport van that can take you all around,” he said.
People can call Moore, the YWCA, the Human Resource Council, or 2-1-1 First Call for Help, he said.
“The fact is, anybody can call 2-1-1 and get a handful of resources very quickly,” he added. “Here’s where this population does find more difficulty than the average person, though. It’s because they’ve already been everywhere.”
One focus of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, is to combat the root causes of homelessness.
But the organization “is not going to keep spending $70 on a person when it’s $70 flushed down the toilet because the person does not move along the continuum,” Moore said. "They're going to spend it on somebody else.
“If resources were infinite, there’s a lot of things that we could do where nobody would have to spend any night outside. But they’re not. So in some cases, we have to target people where there’s some bang for your buck.”
Moore said in his 14 months on the job he’s seen people who seem determined to die on the streets.
“It’s our job to help people we can help, but some people ... there’s only so much you can do for them,” he said.
In Overaker’s eyes, "so much" is not enough. No one has frozen to death in Missoula for quite some time, she said, but the Poverello’s new stance threatens that.
“I think we’re overdue,” she said. “Homelessness is a death sentence.”
What Overaker advocates, said Pehan, is to let people into the Poverello Center who are actively intoxicated.
“We have deemed we cannot do that safely,” the executive director said. “We have found that folks who are intoxicated at that level are too unpredictable, and it places our staff members under too much risk – and our other residents, for that matter.”