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Warming shelter file

A client of the Union Gospel Mission waited outside in 2017 until the doors opened for lunch.

Missoula’s plan to improve its winter shelter response looks much the same on the surface as it did by the end of last winter, but some key differences behind the scenes should help provide better services for people experiencing homelessness.

City officials and nonprofit leaders presented the plan to Missoula City Council members and the Missoula Board of County Commissioners at a Wednesday committee meeting. The plan includes again using the Salvation Army building on Russell Street as an overflow for the Poverello Center, but this time with the Poverello Center running the operation.

Last winter, the city and various nonprofit agencies struggled to find a way to provide enough shelter for those in need after the Union Gospel Mission was forced to close because it didn’t meet building code standards.

After a series of temporary shelters were tried out, the Salvation Army was able to host the Poverello Center’s overflow for the remainder of the coldest winter months. Again the Salvation Army will host the overflow, but this time with a more coordinated plan, including trained staff from the Poverello Center managing the temporary shelter.

The city and county have each budgeted money to fund a winter shelter solution, but Amy Allison Thompson, the Poverello Center’s executive director, said there was still about a $40,000 shortfall. The current funding will get the project off the ground on Nov. 1 as planned, but would run out of funding before it is scheduled to wrap up on March 31.

“Obviously, the Poverello Center operates on a shoestring budget,” Thompson said. “So the funding from the city, the county, St. Patrick’s Hospital and others will allow us to operate the winter shelter at the Salvation Army.”

Missoula County budgeted $50,000 for the shelter, and the city gave an additional $50,000.

Thompson said there were still some local partners she was working with to fill the funding gap, but she hoped some private people might pitch in as well.

The city also has worked in recent months to adopt new rules on how it governs temporary extreme weather shelters. On Monday, the Council adopted a temporary rule change making it easier for churches and other religious assemblies to host winter shelters.

Thompson also said she and the Salvation Army will be working to be in touch with neighbors and businesses to both facilities to mitigate any issues caused by increased traffic during the winter.

In addition to having a trial-by-fire run last winter, the Poverello Center has some more recent experience hosting people at the Salvation Army.

“This summer, we experienced significant flooding at the Poverello Center, which resulted in us operating out of the Salvation Army for about six weeks,” Thompson said. “That time gave us really an opportunity to hone these policies in and understand how we can make this work really effectively.”

In addition to having professionally trained staff, the Poverello Center will work to evaluate each person’s needs to determine how best to satisfy them. As some people seeking shelter are elderly or otherwise not able to get into a top bunk or get up from a floor mat independently, shelter staff can prioritize who goes to the Salvation Army and who has access to beds at the Poverello.

While the location of the overflow facility is the same as last year, Thompson and Council President Bryan von Lossberg said planners had contacted property managers and owners of every vacant commercial building in Missoula about the possibility of hosting a warming shelter, though each led to a dead end.

The Poverello Center maintains a 175-person winter limit, 25 spaces higher than its warm weather limit, and the Salvation Army should be able to host about 50 additional people, Thompson said. Last winter, the total capacity of the two shelters was never exceeded.

In addition to a funding shortfall leaders hope will be filled, Thompson said they have not yet locked down an organization to transport people from the Poverello Center to the Salvation Army at night and back in the morning.

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