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Officials: Missoula's Temporary Safe Outdoor Space homeless camp running well

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Eric Legvold, director of impact at United Way of Missoula County, Jim Hicks, executive director of Hope Rescue Mission, and April Seat, director of outreach at Hope Rescue Mission, speak to members of the press about the new Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, a collaborative project between private, public and faith-based organizations to house those experiencing homelessness.

There are about 25 residents of the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space homeless encampment on Missoula's south side near Highway 93. Three people have been permanently housed so far.

That's according to April Seat, the outreach manager for the Hope Rescue Mission in Missoula, which is operating the camp along with United Way of Missoula County, with logistical support from Missoula County.

Officials with all three organizations held a public listening session Thursday to hear any concerns and gave an update on the camp's situation.

"One gentleman has now been housed for three weeks," Seat said. "He was struggling with addiction but he's working on trying to be sober. We've been at capacity since we opened up. We have eight to 10 people on a waiting list now so there is a huge need for what we're doing."

Many people are working toward employment or have jobs already, but others are still trying to get documents together, she said. At the camp, staff members provide residents with everything from cooking classes to fly-tying classes.

"I think it's been an initiative that has reaped some significant success stories so far," said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

The camp was established late last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to help homeless individuals who don't want to congregate indoors during the winter have a safe, secure and sanitary living situation. There are 20 tents with room for 40 people, but many of the tents are occupied by a single person. The encampment is located just west of Buckhouse Bridge.

"Since the space opened in mid-December on private land just south of Missoula, staff have already helped TSOS residents connect to regular case management services, acquire identification documents such as photo IDs and birth certificates that are often needed to secure housing and employment, [and also help] obtain employment, housing or housing vouchers," explained Missoula County communications manager Allison Franz in an email. "The costs to set up the temporary space are being reimbursed through federal CARES Act money, so no local taxpayer dollars are involved."

Susan Hay Patrick, the CEO of United Way of Missoula County, said there have been no criminal calls originating from the TSOS, and Seat confirmed that fact.

"There have been no law enforcement calls," Hay Patrick said. "We have had some medical calls but not for a while. We had somebody with diabetes that was having trouble that required some intervention but that situation has been resolved."

Jim Hicks with the Hope Rescue Mission said they've been checking in with businesses in the area to see if there are any major problems. Essentially, Hicks said, business owners were concerned with a general transient problem before the TSOS was established, but the problem hasn't been exacerbated since.

"There's a problem there that we didn't bring and we can't necessarily solve," Hicks said.

One of the main goals of the TSOS was to help people transition from the ad-hoc homeless encampments underneath the Reserve Street Bridge, which lacked sanitary services and were illegal. The new space has a heated group tent, is staffed 24/7, has toilets, has food provided on site and is secure. Seat said many people formerly living at the Reserve encampment have transitioned to the new area.

Hay Patrick also made it clear that Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend against "razing homeless encampments" so there is no plan to just simply clear the Reserve Street encampment. She also said the TSOS didn't create the "long-standing problem of homelessness in the community" and isn't meant to solve it entirely. 

"There's a limited supply of appropriate affordable housing as well," she said. "We can't under-emphasize that."

Hay Patrick also noted that the TSOS will operate until the pandemic is over, and won't simply end at March 31.

County Commissioner Josh Slotnick agreed.

"This has exposed both a need and a potential solution," he said. "That you have people that are chronically homeless and you get them into our world a little and provide wraparound services, they can take steps forward. We've gained ground here so the solution should continue."

Hay Patrick and Hicks said there have been many generous donations to help the encampment continue, but "funding is always a challenge." They noted that donations could help with propane costs to heat the group tent, as well as replacing tents that were damaged by a wind storm.

"We continue to do what we can to raise private-sector funding through United Way and Hope Rescue and we are very grateful to the folks who have helped it succeed because it's a very expensive undertaking," Hay Patrick said.

Another camp official noted that people should not just drive up to the private property with donations, but should contact the Hope Thrift Boutique at 702 SW Higgins first.

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