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Opinion: Missoula’s Safe Outdoor Space: Changing the “T” from “Temporary” to “Transitional”
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Guest column

Opinion: Missoula’s Safe Outdoor Space: Changing the “T” from “Temporary” to “Transitional”

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A young man who aged out of foster care, who now has a full-time job and is applying for housing.

A grandmother whose car was wrecked by a hit-and-run driver, who lost first her job and then her housing.

A couple who recently obtained IDs and birth certificates, and are now working full time and saving money to find housing.

A man who had been homeless for 10 years, who is now in stable housing and off the streets.

These are stories of just a few Missoulians who have stayed in the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space on Highway 93 South this cold COVID winter, sleeping in tents and working to rebuild their lives. Opened in December 2020, the TSOS is a COVID-safe, staffed, secure emergency-shelter solution on private land that provides up to a few dozen residents with the kind of services, support and security that can lead, in time, to appropriate, accessible housing. Services include case management, health care, links to community resources, help obtaining IDs and birth certificates, life-skills classes, job-readiness counseling, 12-step programs.

Those of us who started the TSOS — Hope Rescue Mission, United Way of Missoula County, and Missoula County’s Office of Emergency Management — had no assurances it would succeed. Clearly, it has. In less than four months, we have seen lives changed as TSOS residents — some unhoused in Missoula for years — receive the help they need to take the next steps in their lives. For many, the tents, services and relationships at the TSOS offer residents the first sense of safety, security and hope they have experienced in years.

All residents are working with case management. Six people have been housed, with three additional residents securing vouchers and now seeking sustainable housing. Twenty-seven people have received IDs/birth certificates, and several residents are working and saving money in the hope of finding housing — an overwhelming challenge in a market with near zero rental vacancies and skyrocketing rents. Residents adhere to a code of conduct, holding themselves and each other accountable for behavior to keep the camp orderly, healthy and safe. There has been only one law-enforcement call to the site, which was resolved quickly, and only a few medical emergencies requiring first responders.

Although our initial vision was to operate the TSOS until the pandemic is over, we now think continuing in its current location is a viable longer-term transitional housing option for unhoused Missoulians. We are people of faith, people of action, and people of our word, and we do not take lightly the thought of extending this project beyond our original vision and public representations. Over the last several weeks, we have worked diligently to identify a viable alternative property on which to create, post-COVID, a longer-term Safe Outdoor Space of similar size. No such space has materialized, so we are beginning to reach out to area businesses and homeowners about possibly extending the current site. Any project would follow the standard regulatory process required of any other non-emergency project.

We believe it is critical to change the “T” in “TSOS” from “temporary” to “transitional,” and extend this unique public-private partnership. If we don’t, many unhoused people now residing in the TSOS, in the Johnson Street Emergency Shelter (closing April 30), or in the illegal Reserve Street encampment, will camp, or live in cars in local neighborhoods, without access to the kind of structure, relationships and services that have made the TSOS a success. This will result in poorer outcomes for unhoused people, strain our emergency-response system, and pose a risk to community health and safety. Let’s stick with what works.

Susan Hay Patrick is the chief executive officer of United Way of Missoula County. Jim Hicks is executive director of Hope Rescue Mission. Dave Strohmaier is chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners.

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