Poverello Center packed with winter residents as efforts turn toward rapid rehousing

Community volunteers and residents of the Poverello Center help keep the shelter’s kitchen running. The number of homeless residents turning to the shelter for help has increased this year over last. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Most every morning starts with Eric Luongo in the kitchen, overseeing the dicing and slicing of potatoes, the boiling of eggs and the makings of the day’s soup broth.

Aided by community volunteers and residents of the Poverello Center, the kitchen – like much of the shelter – has raced to stay ahead of this year’s growing homeless population, which has swelled to the point that residents have taken to the floor for a warm night’s rest.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of new people coming through,” Luongo said Friday. “We’re seeing a lot more people and it’s not even full-on winter yet. It’s going to get busier as the winter gets colder.”

The Missoula shelter isn’t alone in dealing with the state’s growing homeless population, though the figures depend on how you break them down. The rate of homelessness in Montana inched up nearly 8 percent this year over last year, though the number has fallen overall since 2010.

The figures, based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest “point-in-time” survey, represent what shelter staff already know. Use of the Poverello is on the rise this winter and it’s straining its ability to maintain basic services, whether that’s the cost of providing a hot shower or preparing 450 daily meals.

“We’ve been sleeping an average of 180 people here a night, and that’s up 20 or 30 people a night from our numbers last year,” said Kristen Border-Patton, the shelter’s director of operations. “We’re pretty darned full at the moment, so we don’t have sleeping spaces for everyone right now. We have people sleeping on the floor.”

HUD Secretary Ben Carson didn’t have to name Missoula when he suggested this week that the shortage of affordable housing in some parts of the country was “manifesting itself on our streets.”

That point isn’t missed on Border-Patton, who believes a majority of the Poverello’s clients simply can’t afford the cost of a security deposit and their first month’s rent, which combined can amount to more than $1,000.

While many shelter residents have jobs – the city’s unemployment rate is a scant 3.1 percent, after all – their wages aren’t enough to make ends meet, much less deal with an emergency like a car repair, a health crisis or some other unpredictable issue.

“Missoula is a hard town to get affordable housing in,” Border-Patton said. “Many people who are staying here are employed, and a lot of them come and stay for a few weeks, just so they can save up enough money for that first month’s rent and security deposit.”

As the shelter’s homeless population increases, its staff and other community groups are working to get people housed through the city’s coordinated entry system – coordinated because it now involves a number of community organizations working in tandem.

The approach, required by HUD for agencies to secure certain federal grants, was launched in Missoula in June in an effort to provide clear access points for the homeless and move them toward a permanent housing solution.

“We’re seeing higher numbers at our shelter here, but we’re also more focused on permanent housing here than we’ve ever been,” said Border-Patton. “We have a good plan, but we just need to keep going with it.”

The coordinated system, which includes the YWCA, the Salvation Army and the Missoula Housing Authority, among others, collects system-wide data to help inform changes in resources and identify gaps.

While both the city of Missoula and the federal government have plans to “end homelessness,” that doesn’t mean that no one will experience a housing crisis ever again. Rather, local advocates contend, communities must work to ensure that homelessness is prevented wherever possible.

And when that’s not possible, Missoula must ensure that it looks to make one’s lack of housing a brief and non-reoccurring event.

“It’s just that partnership across the city,” said Border-Patton. “It’s keeping up with the hard work of showing up every day and getting people into housing. It’s tackling the small things that can be big barriers for some that’s super important to address.”