Benjamin Rubin

(Missoula Current) Newly presented data on Missoula’s unhoused community brought yet more insights for the city’s ongoing response. After investing millions of dollars into housing and homelessness services, the numbers showed that some people have made it off the streets.

But, as the data also points out, more work remains for Missoula. In a data-collection approach never before used by the city, survey answers taken from unsheltered respondents over the summer opened a window into what causes and keeps people homeless, and what solutions may lie ahead.

“Over the last three years, our team has made a really concerted effort to strengthen Missoula’s data collection on houselessness, and really find ways to share it with the community,” Emily Armstrong, the city's Houseless Programs Manager, told members of the City Council on Wednesday.

Central to the update was a number: 541. This is the amount of households experiencing homelessness in Missoula as of October 11, down from a previous count of 644 as of last May. This suggests a drop of about 16%.

However, committee members expressed confusion, as the number itself reflects the inherent challenges of collecting data on the unhoused.

“Households” often means only one individual but can also include families in which a second parent or any children are not counted. The intent behind counting this way is to connect people to services more efficiently, the team clarified.

The true number of unhoused people is slightly higher when taking into account families that include multiple people. Still, an overall drop seems evident.

Part of the reduction may be explained by gaps in the data whereby unhoused people find their own solutions. When exiting homelessness, progress may not be recorded if they no longer need services, said Samantha Hilliard, a Coordinated Entry specialist who presented to the committee.

“There is a bit of a gap in the data, and that’s a national issue,” she said. “When folks don’t need us, we don’t see them anymore.”

But for others, entry into secure housing was what brought the count of unhoused people down. “In the last five months, 106 households have found housing, which feels huge,” Hilliard said.

These were broken down further into housing destinations, and how long it took people on average to secure their homes. According to the data, 44 people secured rentals without subsidies, while 36 got rentals with subsidies. But these took an average of 165 and 332 days to obtain, respectively.

Seventeen people also found housing with family or friends, which took an average of 67 days. For three people who entered long-term care, it took an average of 613 days. The remaining few were broken up between sober living facilities, transitional housing and home ownership.

These numbers serve as a reminder that for many, finding housing can involve a long wait. But for Hilliard, there were still reasons to be hopeful, and the process may be speeding up.

“At least from my position, I want to watch for a few months and see if that trend [in drops of homelessness] maintains before we are super excited about it,” she said. “It seems like for the past month, maybe even two months, there are celebrations of people getting into housing every single time, oftentimes several of those. And it's because there’s housing for folks to move into.”

Hilliard’s optimism has been echoed by newly available affordable units accepting previously unhoused residents, such as those in the Villagio and Trinity Apartments.

Summer unsheltered survey

For those who have been living without stable housing, new data seemed to clarify the experience of homelessness in Missoula, along with ideas for more support. A survey of unsheltered homeless people in Missoula collected between July 31st and August 4th revealed a more vivid picture.

Of the 121 unsheltered people surveyed, 70% reported having lived in Missoula or its surrounding areas for a year or longer, with 40% reporting more than 10 years.

For most of these respondents, homelessness wasn’t new, as 64% reported having previously been homeless. But 35% were new to homelessness. Most had also been unhoused for a significant amount of time, as 64% reported having been living without a home for a year or longer.

Over half—at 56%—reported sleeping on the streets within the previous 30 days of being surveyed, and 36% reported sleeping in a park. Around 16% slept at an emergency shelter.

In terms of self-reported causes for homelessness, “job loss” was the most common, followed by “mental health.” “Physical disability,” “family conflict” and “eviction” all shared the third most common ranking, with “substance use disorder” only slightly less prevalent.

The survey also offered a glimpse into homelessness among children. Although 3% of respondents reported that unsheltered children were included in their household, 15% of respondents refused to answer.

Other questions focused on what types of help unsheltered people might want from the community. For a temporary living environment while being unhoused, the top three answers were shared between “Hotel, Motel or Airbnb,” “authorized campsite” and “shelter.”

Answering what has helped foster support during their time unhoused, respondents chose things like “food,” “access to bathrooms,” a “stable place to rest or sleep,” and even “friendship.” Items such as having a case worker or earning their own income were also selected as options that would make respondents feel more supported.

Looking to the future

Representing her team’s vision, Houseless Programs Manager Emily Armstrong said emphasizing plans to reimagine Missoula’s houseless response – alongside that of the larger community – may be on the horizon.

“Our biggest aim right now is to let this data be integrated into our strategy process and see how the community wants to interpret it, what policy solutions and strategic solutions our community wants to prioritize based on the information that we received,” Armstrong said.

Ward 2 Council Member Mirtha Becerra urged the team and the committee to get the numbers updated and make the new survey publicly available.

“The work that you do deserves prime real estate on our city’s website,” she said. “If people had access to that information, perhaps the rhetoric out there, perhaps the conversation would change a little bit, because they would be better informed.”