Saying the organization is on firm footing, Amy Allison Thompson is ready to relinquish her role as the director of the Poverello Center to someone with fresh energy and new ideas, and whoever steps in will have the pieces needed to tackle the challenges ahead.
Five years after signing on as the director of Missoula’s homeless shelter, Thompson on Monday announced her plans to step down come July. The time was right, she said, to move on and pass the organization on to someone new.
“I have been here for five years now and I really feel the Pov is in a good place,” she said. “We have a good leadership team and we’re in a strong place financially. I just decided that if I was going to leave, right now is the right time to do that so someone else could step in and take us to the next level.”
Thompson replaced Eran Pehan as shelter director in 2016, though she wasn’t new to the facility or the line of work. She worked at the old downtown shelter running the Joseph Residence. Thompson stepped into the role as the Pov’s director about one year after the new shelter opened on West Broadway.
Since then, the shelter has seen its population run at or beyond capacity. Over the winter of 2019 and 2020, the Pov reached its capacity of 175 people nightly, even during a relatively mild winter.
Turning those in need away wasn’t easy and the shelter and the city scrambled to find a solution. They made arrangements at the Salvation Army, which picked up as many as 30 residents a night.
Then the pandemic struck and the shelter was forced to reduce its capacity even further. The Pov was also hit with multiple costly plumbing issues that cut into capacity even more. Thompson helped see the shelter through the challenges, though she admits it wasn’t easy.
“It’s been extremely challenging. The events we’ve seen this past year at the Pov have been really trying,” she said. “But I’d also say that the amazing thing is how strong we are despite all of that and how much our team has come together. We’re having more conversations related to our mission more than ever and focusing in on the crucial services that we provide and making sure they happen.”
During her tenure, addressing homelessness in Missoula has made progress. Homeless advocates and service providers established the coordinated entry system to move people into permanent housing more quickly.
The arrangement with the Salvation Army also marked a new coordinated approach between the two shelters. Advocates adopted a housing first model to move the most vulnerable up the waiting list for housing.
The city also adopted a new housing policy and implemented a mobile support team to help those in crisis. Both the city and the county have invested deeply into building permanently affordable housing, including the Trinity project, which is set to begin construction this summer.
When it opens, Trinity will include supportive housing and wrap-around services that address chronic homelessness. Add it up and Thompson believes the needle is moving in the right direction.
“We’ve accomplished a ton here,” she said. “We’ve put together the Missoula Coordinated Entry System, which has allowed us to better understand what folks are facing in our community as far as homelessness and what those numbers look like,” Thompson said. “I also feel we’re making some really great progress toward ending homelessness.”
While progress was gaining momentum before the pandemic, the challenges of the past year have been difficult to maneuver. At times, they’ve brought new challenges to the equation.
“I am disheartened to see the effects of the pandemic and what it has done to our efforts in that we were struggling already with a low vacancy rate in our community,” she said. “The pandemic hits and people are moving all over the place to escape urban areas and we’re feeling that in Missoula. It’s affected our progress at ending homelessness.”
During Thompson’s tenure, the Poverello also shifted its policies around drugs and alcohol. While the shelter formerly operated around a zero tolerance policy, winter weather and the lack of options for unsheltered people with addictions prompted the facility to move to a policy based on behavior.
Combined with a wide net of efforts and new programs, Thompson believes progress is being made.
“Some of those measures take some time to come to fruition. All those seeds that have been planted and the way people are talking about homelessness has shifted,” she said. “I really do have this desire to bring someone in with new energy who is ready to just jump in and be creative and solve the problems that naturally come up in this line of work.”
Thompson plans to stay in Missoula and will record her last day on July 31. The shelter is currently searching for a new director.
“The application process is open,” said Jesse Jaeger, director of advocacy and development for the shelter. “They want applicants in by the 26th of this month.”