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An artist's rendition of the new YWCA facility that would house offices, a domestic violence shelter with 13 sleeping rooms and a family housing center with 31 sleeping rooms. The facility will be built at 1800 S. Third St. W.

With the onset of winter and colder weather, there has been increased community attention to the challenge of homelessness in Missoula. A significant component of this challenge — and one that is not so visible — is family homelessness.

Many people are surprised to learn that Missoula has the largest population of homeless families in the state. These are one- and two-parent households that, whether due to loss of job, unaffordable rent or domestic violence, suddenly find themselves with no place to live. These are literally homeless families who often must resort to sleeping in their cars or camping outside in an effort to keep their families together.

Part of the reason these families remain unseen is that they are working very hard not to be noticed, often out of fear that their children will be removed from their care and in an effort to maintain a sense of normalcy under incredibly stressful conditions. But the truth is, on a typical night in Missoula there are around 50 homeless families, including 100 kids, with no safe place to sleep. And while homelessness is a difficult experience for anyone, it has a profound and often lasting impact on children — starting from day one. Homelessness is linked to low birth weight, malnutrition, poor physical and mental health, and missed educational opportunities.

Family homelessness is also strongly connected to domestic violence. A majority of homeless families in Missoula are headed by single mothers, and for many of them domestic violence is a leading cause of their homelessness. Victims of domestic violence lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year because of the violence that they experienced, increasing their risk of homelessness. Many lose their jobs altogether. Housing is the most common need for survivors of domestic violence, and it is often the most unmet need.

The Poverello Center meets a critical demand in our community by providing emergency shelter and support to homeless adults. However, families with children are not eligible to stay at the Poverello, and their options for emergency housing in Missoula are limited. Currently, the YWCA can shelter up to 12 families at a time and Family Promise, operated by Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, can shelter up to four families at a time. Sometimes homeless families have to remain on our waiting lists for weeks before a room becomes available.

This month the Missoula City Council approved YWCA Missoula’s request for a conditional use permit, allowing the organization to proceed with plans to build a new facility. This facility will be home to the YWCA’s main service center and an expanded domestic violence shelter, replacing the one operated by the YWCA for the past 20 years. Included under the same roof, a new same-day access emergency housing center for homeless families will be operated in partnership with Family Promise. The joint effort will accommodate up to 31 homeless families at a time — double the current capacity between both organizations. We’re excited about this partnership, as it combines the depth of YWCA’s experience with the breadth of Family Promise’s extensive volunteer base. Together, we will serve more people and provide more comprehensive mentorship to homeless families as they rebuild their lives.

Based on our planning efforts and the unanimous approval from City Council, it’s clear that there is widespread community support for this project. Whenever a family loses housing or an individual suffers domestic violence in Missoula, we are committing ourselves to provide safe shelter that night — plus the support necessary to move into a stable home and live a life free from violence. Solving a big issue like this will take creativity and commitment across the community. But Missoula has shown time and time again that it has the heart and the focus to make big ideas happen. Together we can — and must — do this.

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Cindy Weese is executive director of YWCA Missoula. Casey Dunning is executive director of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative. 

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