Four months after the sewage first bubbled up into the Poverello Center’s kitchen — and $240,000 later — the homeless shelter is back to normal.
The initial plumbing failure required closing the kitchen for a few days and shuttering the men’s dormitory for over a month. On the eve of reopening the dorm in late June, it flooded again. The dorm is now set to reopen on Sep. 13, at the latest.
“The issue really was that more people were using the building than they expected when they built the building,” executive director Amy Allison Thompson said Friday.
On any given day, the Poverello hosts about 175 people who do laundry and use the 36 showers and 40 toilets. The building was outfitted with four-inch pipes, with plenty of right-angled fittings, making them easy to stop up when overtaxed.
After that second flood, Allison Thompson said they brought in the original crew who built the building to work on more “innovative” solutions.
They replaced much of the plumbing with larger six-inch pipe and installed 45-degree angle corners in pipelines. An alarm will automatically shut off the water if there’s an issue in order to prevent another backup.
“It’s not as pretty as it used to be,” Allison Thompson said, pointing out a large new pipe jutting out from a corner of the ceiling.
As a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-days-a-year enterprise, the Poverello had to prioritize each step of the repair process. First was making sure their clients had a place to sleep. The men’s dorm housed bunk beds and floor pads for about 56 people. After a week or so of having clients sleep at the Salvation Army, Pov staff decided to put mattresses on the floor upstairs every night.
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Development and advocacy director Jesse Jaeger led the way through a maze of blue mattresses, stacked to the ceiling, to be laid out again that night.
“We’ve been living like this all summer,” Jaeger said. “Just because this happened didn’t mean any of our regular operations would go away.”
Allison Thompson said they could only sleep around 35-40 people this way, and knew from members of the Poverello’s outreach team that some clients decided to sleep outside, with the intention of returning when the dorm reopened.
“Luckily the weather’s been very good this summer,” Jaeger added. “That’s made it safer.”
The second priority was getting the kitchen in working order, which happened about a week after the first backup, albeit in a limited capacity. The flooded section of the kitchen is still only usable as storage space and will be finished later. Jaeger pointed out “the world’s largest shop vac” they bought to help clean up if disaster strikes again.
The last priority was refinishing the men’s dormitory for long-term use. Given the restart after the second plumbing failure, it’s taken just over four months to finish.
The total cost of repairs was $240,000, Allison Thompson said. Insurance paid out $60,000, in two chunks after each sewage backup. The remaining $180,000 was paid through donations from eight major donors (including the Washington Foundation, Clearwater Credit Union, First Interstate Bank and Missoula County), along with a handful of individual donations of both food and money.
“It’s insane,” Allison Thompson said of the donations. “Really the community just rallied around us.”