By Martin Kidston
It’s not yet noon at Missoula’s Poverello Center, though the line forming at the lunch counter is growing longer. It extends from the dining room into the visitor’s center, where Amy Allison Thompson watches while considering the 145 residents who found refuge at the shelter the night before.
Although Allison Thompson now serves as the Poverello’s executive director, she’s not new to the shelter. As a student pursuing her master’s degree eight years ago, she took a job at the old downtown Poverello, running the organization’s Joseph Residence.
“That’s really when I became invested in the work the Poverello does,” she said. “It’s important to me because I see the population we serve here as being invisible to the rest of the world.”
Seated in her office the day before Thanksgiving, Allison Thompson explained the path that brought her back to Missoula to serve as the Poverello’s director. Back in college, she was the shelter’s case manager before working up to program manager and, eventually, to director of family services.
When the time was right, she left Missoula to implement a behavioral health program at the community health center in Libby. From there, she moved with her husband to Great Falls, where she headed the Montana chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Along the way, the shelter’s former executive director, Eran Pehan, served as Allison Thompson’s mentor. She also played a hand in coaxing Allison Thompson back to Missoula. Pehan, who left the shelter earlier this year, now serves as director of the city’s new office of Housing and Community Development.
“In the spring, (Pehan) reached out to me and told me she’d be leaving this job, and encouraged me to apply for it,” Allison Thompson said. “She’d been my mentor throughout my entire career and a big supporter of me. I felt that if I didn’t apply, I’d regret it.”
Allison Thompson steps into the role roughly one year after the Poverello opened its new shelter on West Broadway. But the memories of the old downtown facility haven’t faded – the failing structure, the overcrowding, the hours spent addressing the building’s physical issues.
Back then, Allison Thompson served as a member of the committee working to design the new shelter. It seemed a lofty vision at the time, though she kept tabs on the progress while working elsewhere in Montana.
“It definitely gives me perspective on what we have now versus what we had then,” she said. “At the old Poverello, the building was falling apart and our staff time was taken up trying to keep the building together. Now that the building is running smoothly, we can really focus on serving our clients rather than taping the building together.”
With Allison Thompson at the helm, the Poverello is looking to the future by exploring its role in the Missoula community. Across town, Pehan also is working on the city’s new housing initiatives, and it’s likely the two entities – Poverello and the city – will find mutual ground in tackling homelessness and the challenges that surround it.
“The conversation is really around how the Poverello fits in with what the city wants to do and how to work together to not overlap and make sure we’re creating a system that can start to address homelessness in the community,” Allison Thompson said. “(Pehan) is coming to the city with fresh eyes and I’m coming here with fresh eyes. I see some real opportunity there to make some big changes.”
While the Poverello’s Board of Directors explores the future, Allison Thompson comes to the job with her own goals. Foremost among them, she hopes to address chronic homelessness and the underlying factors that make it so difficult to resolve.
That includes so-call “wet housing,” a term that has fallen out of favor with the city, though the goal remains the same. While the Poverello serves a long list of clients, it cannot serve those who’ve been drinking. Yet with addiction standing as one of the leading factors in chronic homelessness, not addressing it it leaves a gap in the system — and in any cure.
“I think the city needs to start looking at how we serve people who aren’t allowed to stay at the Poverello Center.” Allison Thompson said. “That’s a real gap in our services, and it’s something I’m concerned about.”
While the Poverello doesn’t serve those who’ve been drinking directly, it does have a homeless outreach team that works to identify the city’s unsheltered residents. That includes those living in the Reserve Street camps and elsewhere around town.
A survey conducted on a single night in January 2016 identified 395 homeless individuals in Missoula. Of those, 102 were listed as unsheltered.
“We have a direct link to those folks who are unsheltered,” she said. “Seeing what their unique challenges are and finding ways to bring them into services has been a really helpful to me and something we should put more focus on.”
Allison Thompson described the cause as somewhat personal. After nearly a decade in the field, she believes the city’s homeless residents pass through the day invisible to most. She also feels the stereotypes surrounding the homeless need to be corrected, and it’s something that’s high on her radar.
While mental health issues and addiction often play a part in the homeless equation, she said, a lack of coping skills is often overlooked as a contributing factor.
“I grew up in a household where my parents taught me how to write a resume, how to interview, show up to a job on time, clean my house and do these basic skills,” she said. “If you’re raised in a household that’s already struggling, in poverty and dealing with mental health or addiction issues, it’s a huge piece you miss.”
“To me, it’s crucial, recognizing that not everyone has those same resources and knowledge and how that puts them at a great disadvantage,” she added. “There’s often so many stereotypes about homeless people that the desire for me to shift those stereotypes and educate people really drives me to do this work.”