An hour before the Salvation Army opened its doors to the city’s homeless population on Saturday night, Capt. Josh Boyd worked alone, stacking chairs to make room for sleeping mats and those in need of warmth and shelter.
The decision to open the facility as a makeshift shelter for Missoula’s overflow homeless population was made the day before. At 9 p.m., an hour before opening, Boyd stayed busy preparing for the unknown.
“We decided to open late last night (Friday) and it’s the holiday weekend, so just getting in touch with the right people to let them know was difficult,” Boyd said. “But law enforcement knows, the Poverello Center knows, the hospitals know and EMS knows. They’re aware of what’s going on and word is getting out.”
Opening to intoxicated homeless residents, those with pets, and families unable to find shelter fills a need within the community. The Poverello Center can’t accommodate that demographic, given its policies, Boyd said, and the YWCA is often full with families.
“We’ll have some who are perhaps intoxicated, and we’ll have some with pets,” he said. “There’s really no place for them to go with a pet. And there’s a very limited shelter space for families right now, and (the YWCA) is almost always full.”
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 a permit to do so in November.
Boyd and has spent the past two months working to raise the $50,000 needed to hire shelter staff. Four employees have been hired, and they underwent training on Saturday afternoon. Other hires may follow.
“We had a fair amount of applicants,” he said. “We’ll be doing another wave of hiring in the next few weeks. A lot of those will be on-call employees to help fill on nights when the other staff isn’t available.”
As Boyd prepared the facility – the sleeping mats freshly delivered and still in boxes – he considered the building’s capacity to accommodate those expected to come. The cafeteria will sleep single men and women. The lobby will serve those with pets. The chapel has been reserved for families.
While the shelter was quiet before its official opening, Boyd expected that to change over the coming days as word begins to spread. And with the facility open to intoxicated homeless individuals – a first for Missoula – the police department will serve as a partner.
“They’re aware we’re doing this, and that they may get some calls,” Boyd said. “They may come through during the night to do a courtesy check as well. We’re hoping we don’t need them very often, but it’s possible it may come up on occasion. Because this is a last resort for most people, we want to make sure sending them out on the street is our last resort.”
While a recent “point in time” survey suggested a decrease in Montana’s homeless population, Boyd sees otherwise. The Poverello Center last year began turning away homeless individuals due to a lack of capacity, and this year has been no different.
The Salvation Army stepped in to fill that need, though Boyd believes it will remain a challenge in need of both solutions and funding. Several private donors stepped in this year to help, including St. Patrick Hospital, the United Way, which raised $10,000, and DJ&A Architects, which contributed $12,000, according to Boyd.
“Just because of the cold weather and the growing need in the community, we felt a lot of pressure to get this done as soon as possible and make sure we could provide this service to the community,” he said. “We’re excited in a way, really, to extend this service to people who really need it.”
While the city and county didn’t contribute this year due to the Salvation Army’s last-minute request for funding, Boyd hopes they will do so next year. He fears private donors may grow fatigued and that fundraising for a shelter could rob contributions from the Salvation Army’s other programs.
“It would be difficult to do a private campaign from all the private donors every year,” he said. “After a while, donors also become fatigued asking for the same cause over and over. It potentially takes away from donors who would give to us otherwise for our regular programs. We don’t want to put those funds in jeopardy.”
Boyd skipped his holiday vacation to open the shelter on Saturday night.
“If I went on vacation, it would have been another delay before we got open,” he said. “The need is so great, and there could literally be people’s lives at stake, and that’s not something I can take lightly. Because the community was so supportive and so generous, I felt the need to make sure we’re following through on those desires.”