Frustrated by “poor planning,” Missoula County denies funding for warming shelter

Capt. Josh Boyd of the Salvation Army in Missoula stands before a table adorned with donated coats. The Salvation Army has raised $39,000 of $50,000 it needs to operate its new winter warming shelter this year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Excluded from conversations around homeless housing issues, Missoula County on Wednesday temporarily denied funding to the Salvation Army and its upstart winter shelter program, saying it must consider other emergent needs.

But as temperatures dive and the safety of Missoula’s homeless population becomes a concern, commissioners also encouraged the organization to return in January with an update on its effort to privately raise the funding needed to operate its shelter this winter.

“There’s a need you’re trying to address right now, but winter could be long and cold and there might be other emergent needs we need to address,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier told the organization. “It’s something we need to take into account.”

The Salvation Army won approval from headquarters in October to open its new Russell Street facility as a winter warming shelter. The Missoula City Council granted the organization the zoning permit to do so last month.

But the organization must raise $50,000 to hire shelter staff. So far, Capt. Josh Boyd said, the Salvation Army has raised $39,000 within the community.

“Primarily that’s for staffing costs – to make sure we have two people on site every night for 10 hours a night,” Boyd said. “We still have about $11,000 to meet our goal to fund (the shelter) through the end of March when the average temperature is still below freezing at night.”

While the organization remains $11,000 shy of its goal, Boyd said its fundraising has gone well. So well, in fact, it received approval from Salvation Army headquarters to open the Missoula shelter with the funding it has on hand.

At the shelter Wednesday, Boyd said the organization is working to hire nighttime staff. He hopes to open the shelter’s doors within the next few weeks, though that will depend on how the hiring process goes.

“In a normal situation, we would have been planning this for months ahead of time and we’d have a long-term plan to address these things earlier on,” Boyd said, standing over a table piled deep with winter coats. “We’re exploring all the options available to us right now. Perhaps the fundraising efforts will continue to go well.”

Boyd delivered a similar message to commissioners, who shared concern for the city’s homeless – those who don’t or can’t take shelter at the Poverello Center.

Despite that concern, Commissioner Cola Rowley expressed frustration over a lack of conversation and planning on the issue. It should come as no surprise that temperatures turn deadly in the winter, she said, and that many homeless have no place to go for any number of reasons.

“To bring this to us now and say it’s an emergency is not fair, and it’s poor planning,” Rowley said. “I’m not understanding exactly why the community’s poor planning is considered the taxpayers’ emergency when this could have been addressed years ago, and definitely months and months and months ago.”

While advocates have held a number of meetings on the issue, Rowley said the county was excluded from those talks. That also serves as a major source of frustration, she said.

“We are excluded from the process until somebody wants money,” she said. “That’s not okay.”

The county currently distributes roughly $800,000 annually to local nonprofits, including those that assist the homeless and tend to other social needs. That funding comes from the county’s Community Assistance Fund and supports nearly 20 local organizations that must compete for the money.

Through that process, some organizations receive funding while others do not. It wouldn’t be fair, Rowley said, for the county to usurp that process and give money to the Salvation Army while others are forced to compete for it.

“It’s not fair for a project to come in and take the money from those projects when it didn’t go through the competitive application process, especially when this need was known during the application process,” Rowley said. “If this was a need, you all could have put in an application for this money at the beginning of the year and been allocated funding. I’m extremely frustrated we’re here today being asked to fund it.”

Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office on Housing and Community Development, said she didn’t disagree with Rowley’s take on the issue and the frustrations that surround it.

At the Salvation Army’s defense, she said fundraising efforts for the winter warming shelter didn’t begin until October, when the organization received permission to proceed with its plan. But that effort itself was born from discussions that started in May with members of the At Risk Housing Coalition.

“That is where we do this planning around gaps and needs analysis,” Pehan said. “We did have a much smaller group from the At Risk Housing Coalition that engaged in some direct planning around this effort. That is somewhere where we could have and should have gotten more collaboration from the county.”

Pehan said efforts to use the Salvation Army as a winter warming shelter – and efforts to fund it – point to a larger challenge that could take another year to resolve.

That includes building the capacity of Missoula’s nonprofits so they can fund wider community needs.

“We know these last-minute emergent efforts are not ideal and not the way we should proceed,” she said. “We need to build the system out at a macro level to be able to meet all these needs, and that takes time and capacity building in the nonprofit realm.”

Rowley asked that the county be included in the process.

“At the end of the day, we want to make sure people don’t die and freeze to death during the winter,” she said. “The bottom line is, moving forward, we want to make sure we’re taking care of our community.”

Strohmaier added, “I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re cold hearted and not of the mind to assist. But with limited resources and the emergent needs we’ve seen in past years, we’re being cautious not to exhaust the bandwidth we have available right now, and so early in the season.”