Guests at Missoula's Poverello Center had a rude awakening Wednesday morning after a backed-up drain in the kitchen seeped sewage into the basement ceiling and men's dormitory.

Staffer Haley Hatfield said when she arrived at 7 a.m. for her regular shift, they were evacuating the homeless shelter on Broadway, which is temporarily closed. They expected to reopen Wednesday evening to provide sleeping quarters for about 160 people, but won't be able to serve up to 500 meals they typically offer for at least a few days.

“The safety of our clients is a top priority for the Poverello Center,” Amy Allison Thompson, the executive director of the Poverello Center, said in a press release. “Once the issue was recognized, our staff worked quickly to clear the affected areas and began to assess damage.”

Jesse Jaeger, director of development and advocacy at the center, said a "plug" in their plumbing caused the sewage to back up. The sleeping arrangements will be tight, with the largest basement dorm closed until further notice. Second-floor sleeping areas for women, veterans and people with medical conditions will remain open. The plumbing problem has been fixed, so the bathrooms can be used. 

“The Poverello Center is working with a professional remediation company to clean up this plumbing issue,” added Allison Thompson. “I am confident that we will quickly be able to return to being a safe and clean space to providing food and shelter to Missoulians experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.”

Wednesday afternoon, dozens of homeless people mingled outside of the shelter, reading books, talking on cellphones or just staring at the ground. One pregnant woman shouted that they had nowhere to go, and wondered aloud why no hotel rooms were being offered.

Inside, a conga line of staff wearing latex or vinyl gloves passed milk cartons full of cheese, lettuce, flour, sugar and every other edible item from the kitchen to a dumpster. Occasionally, a man carrying a large green garbage bag dripping liquids ran past the line to toss the goods into the dumpster.

Poverello staff estimated they tossed out 2,800 pounds of food.

Plastic sheets covered the kitchen doors to prevent additional contamination, and also covered the entrances to the lower floor dorm, which is the largest at the center.

"We're throwing out every piece of food that's in here out of an abundance of caution," Jaeger said. "We work very hard and follow very strict food guidelines … Everything was stored properly, but when the drain backed up we decided to throw out everything to make sure it's squeaky clean. Right now, it's all hands on deck to take care of this mess." 

The kitchen will be closed until Friday, and possibly longer. The Poverello staff are working with community partners, including the Missoula Food Bank and the First United Methodist Church, to make a plan for how to continue to serve meals to clients during the closure.

"They're our stalwart church and will be opening their commercial kitchen to us," Jaeger said. "We're inviting community members and volunteers to come there and make sack lunches tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday. Our goal is to make 2,500 sack lunches. That should get us through Monday."

Volunteers can sign up for shifts at https://signup.com/go/YkWkfUM.

Food donations can be delivered to First United Methodist Church between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Jaeger added that they can't accept any food donations at the Poverello Center due to a lack of storage and the possibility of contamination.

Jaeger said they need significant amounts of bread, sliced meat, cheese, granola bars, apples, oranges, peanut butter and jelly, single-serve chips, baggies, plastic wrap, grocery bags or paper lunch bags, and bottled water — anything typically found in sack lunches — at the church.

While insurance should cover most of the costs of replacing food, mattresses and bedding, Jaeger said they also could use monetary donations to cover items like deductibles and the overtime they'll need to pay for calling in every staff member.

Hatfield said the clients are banding together to make sure everyone is safe, and Old Chicago, Bridge and Pizza Hut donated 37 pizzas for lunch on Wednesday. 

"It was amazing we were able to feed them," Hatfield said. "I don't know what the kitchen will look like for the next couple of days. And there definitely are some people who don't know where they'll stay tonight."

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