Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but there are probably well over 300 homeless people in Missoula on any given day.
They are veterans, seniors living off Social Security, kids aging out of the foster care system with no place to go, families living in cars, high school students couch surfing and people with mental health issues.
“And they’re largely invisible,” said Susan Hay-Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County. “And many are homeless through no fault of their own. And they’re never quite sure where their next meal will come from.”
Hay-Patrick gave the introductory remarks for a City Club Missoula discussion about Reaching Home, Missoula’s 10-year plan to end homelessness that was adopted in 2012.
The city's Reaching Home coordinator Theresa Williams and Eran Pehan, the director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, gave an update of the progress over the last five years and outlined plans for the future. They were joined by Jill Bonny, who manages veterans’ programs for the Poverello Center homeless shelter.
“We have seen homeless numbers go down by 350 people since 2011,” Pehan said. “We are seeing a decline, which tells us some of those efforts are working.”
Still, homelessness remains a vexing issue in Missoula, and counting everyone who lacks permanent, affordable and sustainable housing is an inexact science.
“Our shelters are full,” Williams said, although she couldn’t say exactly how many homeless people there are in Missoula, other than to say it’s more than 300.
She said the goal is to reach "functional zero", or the point when more people are being admitted to housing programs than there are homeless people on the streets.
“We can never reach that hard zero, but we can get to a functional zero,” she said.
She said the Poverello Center tries to treat people’s situations as a “housing crisis” when they check in, to get the ball rolling immediately to find them permanent housing rather than have them settle in for three months. In 2014, the Missoula Human Resource Council launched a new housing referral system designed to streamline the process to help people find a place to live.
The Community Housing Referral and Information System allows people to provide information to a single agency, rather than having to go through multiple interviews at multiple agencies.
Recently, the Reaching Home program launched Missoula County’s Coordinated Entry System, a nationally recognized program. It gives homeless people clear access points, a standardized community assessment process and a referral system that ensures the most vulnerable households are prioritized for housing and service openings.
“Rather than first-come, first-served,” Williams explained, "we are matching the highest-need folks with services and housing.”
Williams also said her office has prioritized "diversion," which means helping people come up with their own resolution to a housing crisis.
“We have a conversation with someone when they come in,” she explained. “It’s hard to think when you are experiencing something like that. But sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, I do have an uncle that might put me up’ or something like that. We have a lot more people that need housing resources than we have the resources for. It’s very unbalanced. So we want people to look at the natural supports they have within family and friends.”
Williams said that diverting 50 households would save $70,000 a month, according to a Housing and Urban Development study that found the average one-time cost of diversion is $200 per household compared to the average $1,614 per month cost of emergency shelter.
Trish Kirschten, the Families in Transition liaison for Missoula County Public Schools, told the Missoulian that there are 325 students in the district who qualify for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act program.
Among other things, the students qualify for immediate enrollment even if they don’t have all the paperwork. That helps them with transportation to and from school and gives them additional support in school such as getting some fees waived, along with tutoring for tests and access to outside social services at places like the YWCA, the Missoula Food Bank and the Missoula Housing Authority.
“Focusing on schoolwork is sometimes the very last thing that’s on their mind,” Kirschten said. “They’re worried about what they’re going to eat and where they’re going to sleep, and school is not it. We do everything we can to make sure school is a safe place to get two free meals a day and food on weekends and make sure they stay in school and succeed. But we do education, not social services.”
Just on Monday, Kirschten said she believes nearly two dozen more kids became eligible for the program in Missoula. They qualify if they lack a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.
“That can be a family doubled up for economic reasons, people living in a shelter, unsheltered or in substandard housing,” Kirschten said. “We have specific guidelines for substandard housing.”
During the winter, there can be an increase in applications to the program, she said.
“They tend to come out of the woodwork at certain times, but especially the beginning of the school year,” she said. “Often, they are bouncing from community to other communities. We definitely see more kids in winter and they are often using social services. We try and catch them before they fall through the cracks.”
For more information on Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, visit www.missoulaunitedway.org/reachinghome or http://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/2086/Housing-Community-Development.