Homeless memorial in Missoula

Sandra Bowen, left, and Mary Arlet, were both staying at the Poverello Center when they attended the Homeless Persons' Memorial at the Missoula County Courthouse in December 2018. Both were friends with Susan Egeland, who was among the 16 known people who died in Missoula in 2018 without a home.

With each passing day, winter draws nearer. The days are growing shorter, the nights are getting colder and Missoula still has no plan in place for an emergency homeless shelter.

The situation reached a critical point last winter after the Union Gospel Mission was barred from sheltering the homeless because it didn’t meet city zoning regulations. The Salvation Army stepped up to fill the gap, but only after the Missoula City Council held an emergency meeting to approve an special ordinance granting it permission, and only after the Salvation Army raised $50,000 in funding to cover necessary materials and staffing. The city was not able to contribute because all its funds were already dedicated to other uses.

The Salvation Army made it clear that it would not be able shelter the homeless every winter at its Russell Street location. The Poverello Center homeless shelter, which is a drug- and alcohol-free facility, can temporarily stretch its capacity to shelter up to 200 individuals, but even it has its limits.

And when those limits are met, on the coldest nights of the year, where do Missoula’s homeless go? After nearly a year of discussion, why doesn’t Missoula have a public plan in place already?

Monday evening, the Missoula City Council will hold a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for churches and other groups to set up temporary shelters. The facilities would be have to meet building codes, and the operators would be encouraged but not required to share a management plan with the city.

It’s frustrating that it has taken so long to do so little. City leaders should be driving a public discussion of how to help keep our homeless neighbors safe and warm over the coming cold months.

Missoula does have a coordinated entry system and a coordinated process that knits together various social services thanks to the “10 Year Plan to End Homeless” that has been in place since 2012. This plan, which aims to provide a comprehensive response to the diverse factors that cause homelessness, has met with some success in streamlining communication both locally and with other communities in Montana.

Point-in-time surveys show that the number of homeless individuals in Missoula has been decreasing since reaching a peak of 585 in 2014. Similarly, the total number of homeless people in Montana has been on the decline.

However, at last count Missoula has the highest number of homeless out of any community in the state – higher even than Billings, which has a larger overall population – at about 300 individuals.

A recent City Council candidate forum renewed an important discussion about perceptions and facts regarding Missoula’s homeless. At the forum last month Brent Sperry, who is challenging incumbent Mirtha Becerra for a seat in Ward 2, shared his belief that homeless people are drawn to Missoula for its public services, and that building more shelters will only “magnify” the problem.

In response, Reaching Home coordinator Theresa Williams collected directly relevant data and shared it with the Missoulian. It shows that most homeless people in Missoula are originally from Missoula, and that the need exceeds the availability of services.

At the Poverello, 66% of its visitors had a home in Montana before becoming homeless, and 51% of these were in Missoula County. At Family Promise, 83% of homeless families lived in Missoula County.

People turn to homeless shelters for a different reasons, and different nonprofits aim to address different reasons. Some, like the YWCA, focus on helping women and families escaping domestic violence. Others help those struggling with addiction, mental illness or unexpected crisis.

It may surprise some Missoulians to learn that many homeless people have jobs or collect disability benefits or Social Security. In fact, the Poverello reports that 40% of its clients have an income. Missoula’s high housing costs make housing security a challenge for those making minimum wage or supporting a family on one or two part-time jobs.

It’s true that Missoula does draw people in need of health care, job assistance, veterans’ services and other supports from nearby communities that don’t have them. That is a credit to Missoula, and an aspect of our shared values as a community we should all be proud to reinforce.

But we can all agree that a shelter is only one step up from a cold car or a frigid sidewalk. It’s far better to help the homeless before they find themselves with no place else to go. Again to its credit, Missoula has several major projects in the works to provide housing for homeless families and affordable housing for at-risk households.

Even though Missoula has a lofty goal of ending homelessness, it is likely that there will always be homeless people in need of emergency shelter on the coldest winter nights. Missoula should do all it can to make this number as low as possible. But it should also do all it can to make sure that those in urgent need of a temporary place to warm up have a safe place to go.

The city once had a drop-in center that offered a warm shelter from the cold, as well as referrals for medical help and other services. It originated in 2008 the basement of the First Baptist Church, but its use dropped off sharply after it was moved into the former Poverello building.

When the new Poverello Center opened, it did not include a drop-in shelter. Instead, the Pov’s directors emphasized its Homeless Outreach Teams as a more effective way of reaching homeless on the streets.

Clearly, there is still a need for a seasonal, temporary, emergency shelter for those with no other housing options. 

As a concerned and caring community, Missoulians should be pressing city leaders for a plan to shelter our most vulnerable homeless neighbors. And we shouldn’t wait until the dead of winter to realize there’s no place for them to go.

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