Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the mayor's request for an emergency levy to fund the operation of a second homeless shelter for the remainder of the year remains on the table, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday directed city staff to present a menu of other options and provide regular updates on the progress.

In doing so, council made it clear its desire to be part of the process, something that hasn't been the case thus far, several members said.

“It's giving staff and the administration notice that as you're talking about solutions, that's when we want to be part of the conversation,” said council member Mike Nugent. “Council wants to be a part of setting that long-term vision for what we're doing. I don't think council wants to have a yes or no vote on a recommendation made without talking about the impacts.”

While the challenge facing the city regarding homelessness has proven to be a heavy lift, members of City Council on Wednesday struggled to agree on whether they should give staff firm directives to explore.

That includes researching a permanent year-round shelter, creating a “transitional community” built of tents, campers and tiny homes, and securing 30 units of transitional housing with wrap-around services.

Eran Pehan, director of the city's department of housing and development, said her office is willing to explore those issues further, but opening the Johnson Street shelter is their top priority at this point in time.

“Getting the temporary shelter off the ground is our primary focus right now, because that's what the provider community has recommended,” said Pehan. “They're the experts in the field, and that's who we're taking our cues from, and we'd recommend council takes its cues from.”

State of Emergency

Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess declared a state of emergency last week and the city is now exploring ways to fund the Johnson Street shelter's operation for the remainder of the year – and in future years.

Emily Armstrong, the city's houseless program manager, said her department plans to submit a budget request this summer for $1.2 million to operate the Johnson Street shelter for one year. The sum represents 60% of the total $2.1 million cost. Missoula County would fund the remaining 40%, she said.

The Johnson Street shelter.
The Johnson Street shelter.

In addition, her office will also seek $70,000 in the upcoming budget to create the “next community strategy” to end homelessness. They'll also seek $129,000 to cover the start-up and operating expenses associated with the Trinity navigation center.

Opening the shelter for year-round operations will also require modifications, the cost of which remain uncertain, Armstrong said. The restroom facilities offered for temporary use in the winter season aren't permitted for year-round use.

“We need to renovate and do construction at that building. We need to create more capacity for bathrooms, hand washing and hot water access to make it a safe and secure year-round operation,” she said. “We do not have ongoing funding for this. It's hard to make long-term plans when there's no money.”

No More Surprises

The emergency proclamation announced by the mayor will permit the city to levy two mills, which would generate around $500,000 in additional tax revenue from Missoula property owners. But the levy is one-time only and still requires approval from City Council.

Some council members said Friday's announcement by the mayor came as a surprise. Others said they haven't been included in discussions on homelessness and the solutions that may be pending down the road. In part, Wednesday's action sought to ensure those discussions include City Council members in the future and that updates are offered on a regular basis.

“I've had so many calls from constituents who are having genuine health and safety concerns about the (Johnson Street) shelter,” said council member Kristen Jordan. “It effects the quality of life of my constituents, it effects their home values, and it effects the way they use their park next door. Ward 6 Six is tired of being ground zero for houseless strategies.”

City staff said that while reopening the Johnson Street shelter for year-round use is their top priority, discussions haven't taken place on making it a permanent shelter. The city owns the property and the intent when purchasing it was to redevelop it for the benefit of the neighborhood.

Residents who live nearby have concerns over the shelter's planned reopening and extended us.

“We've all been directly affected by the opening of the Johnson Street shelter over the last two winters, and we have serious concerns about the potential opening of the shelter this summer,” said resident Josh Farmer. “We all would like to see the area of the Johnson Street shelter be redeveloped as once was proposed for economic purposes, not for homeless camping mitigation.”