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Missoula homeless advocates address concerns, praise for temporary camp

Volunteers set up a temporary camp for homeless individuals north of Highway 93 in this November file photo. The camp currently houses around 15 individuals. (Missoula Current file photo)

The Missoula City-County Joint Information Center for COVID-19 on Wednesday addressed a mix of concerns and praise offered by the public regarding Missoula’s new Temporary Safe Outdoor Space (TSOS).

The TSOS, located on a plot of privately-owned land north of Highway 93, has recently been established as a project to help provide people experiencing homelessness a safe and sheltered space during the COVID-19 pandemic.

United Way of Missoula County and the Hope Rescue Mission have spearheaded the effort.

“It is a safe, healthy, secure, staffed 24/7 environment on private land that prioritizes serving – with dignity – people experiencing homelessness who are not accessing services currently,” said Susan Hay Patrick, the CEO of United Way of Missoula County.

As the coronavirus pandemic continuing to rage on, local shelters such as the Poverello Center and Johnson Street emergency winter shelter have only been able to operate at a limited capacity due to health and safety concerns.

The TSOS was created as a direct response to these shelters’ reduced capacity. Especially with winter approaching, those involved with the project believe it was increasingly unsafe for unhoused people to be living on the streets.

Currently, Patrick estimates there are 15 people living in the temporary encampment. However, the site can accommodate up to 40 people and offers a variety of resources.

“It includes 20 two-person tents spaced for social distancing, bathroom facilities, hand-washing, trash removal, food, outreach workers, case management, safety precautions, wellness screenings, links to hotels, housing and healthcare services and PPE – masks, gloves and cleaning supplies,” Patrick said.

Through these measures, the TSOS is set-up to be a much-more structured space than the unregulated encampment near Reserve Street.

It is staffed around the clock by the Hope Rescue Mission to ensure that the environment remains safe and healthy.

While not an end-all solution, Jim Hicks, the executive director of Hope Rescue Mission, believes it is a step in the right direction for the residents there right now.

“Prior to this particular site, their lives were filled with fight or flight. And this has provided them a safe, secure place to begin to build that upward mobility that they need,” Hicks said.

Participants using the TSOS are expected to adhere to an agreement that includes behavioral expectations, rights and responsibilities.

Yet, one of the main concerns that arose during Wednesday’s meeting pertained to whether there were any sex offenders or criminals residing in the newly established encampment.

Kiley McGowen, a resident living in Lower Miller Creek, expressed worry that the camp was located so close to Jeannette Rankin Elementary School.

“As far as I know, right now, there are no sexual offenders there. We know the people that are there. So, there’s no violent or sexual offenders there,” Hicks said.

Another concern that community members expressed related to the length of the project.

As of now, according to Hicks, the TSOS will be set up through the end of March.

“Part of that will depend, at least in my mind – this is not official – part of that will depend upon where we are at with the COVID pandemic and congregate sheltering and how we can best help folks,” he said. “But, right now, it is temporary in the sense of going through March.”

While some community members spoke up to voice their apprehensions, others spoke up in support of the project.

Deena Mansour, for example, the executive director of the Mansfield Center, was one community member to note her approval of the project.

“I do think that, especially during a pandemic, this is truly an emergency. And I support your efforts to develop this temporary camp. And that this defines who we are as a society – how we treat members of our society who need that support. So, I do support your efforts,” she said.

Susan Hay Patrick with United Way of Missoula County ultimately wrapped up the meeting, summarizing her thoughts on the encampment and the issue of houselessness in Missoula.

“We’re committed to the success of this project. We know it’s a temporary solution,” she said.

“We also continue to work every day on permanent solutions that would make homelessness in Missoula rare, brief and one-time only.”