Each year on the longest night and often when it’s the coldest, city residents join the homeless to remember those who died for lack of shelter. The event marks a somber remembrance, bringing issues surrounding homelessness to bear, even if for a single night.
Yet organizations across Missoula, as well as local government, are working behind the scenes to bring an end to homelessness by addressing the issues that create it. Now five years into their plan, they’ve marked progress and are set to embark on another chapter.
“We’ve seen our numbers of homeless people in the state go down by 350 since 2011,” said Eran Pehan, director of Missoula’s Office of Housing and Economic Development. “We’re seeing a decline, which tells us that some of those efforts are working.”
On Monday, Pehan joined a panel of local housing and service experts at City Club Missoula to detail the next chapter in Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.
Adopted in 2011, the plan has helped the city move from the old way of doing business to something that now resembles a coordinated, citywide approach. Among them, Pehan said, it pushed local organizations to pool their resources to create a coordinated entry system.
The system directs those in need to a single access point that in turn navigates them to the appropriate services. That effort has evolved into what Pehan dubbed version 2.0.
“Early on, it was really involving agencies that had to do it, so we didn’t have the entire community as part of coordinated entry,” said Pehan. “This last year, we have multiple agencies coming around the table to work on coordinated entry. We’ve implemented a lot of different strategies and components to coordinated entry this past year.”
Pehan said the effort has shown success, some of which resulted from mandates enacted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Among them, the changes have moved the community from its old model of transitional housing to a more permanent solution, and it helped organizations like the YWCA become more competitive when applying for rapid rehousing dollars.
“We have 160 slots annually to serve people through rapid rehousing, and that’s something that has changed dramatically,” said Pehan. “We’ve also had success in the relocation and construction of the Poverello Center, which strengthens that crisis response system.”
But even that has seen changes, Pehan said. Shelter residents are now confronted with more “intentional” conversations in an effort to move them into the system, where experts can address their challenges and get them back on their feet – and with the expectation that it happens sooner than it did in the past.
But while the gains are reflected in the numbers, the lack of data has hindered the city’s ability to focus its resources on the best solutions. As the plan’s third phase unfolds, data collection will play a central role.
“What we can’t do right now is quantify that in a good way because the data hasn’t been a focus,” Pehan said. “It’s why we’re making it a focus now.”
Theresa Williams, a clinical social worker and the plan’s coordinator, said systemwide data will help the city understand a range of needs, from short-term housing subsidies for rental assistance to permanent supportive housing, which comes with a voucher for supportive services.
It may also show how many people resolve their own problems without using public subsidies.
“It really helps us see the big picture of what we really need, and how many people are able to self-resolve their situation without the system stepping in,” said Williams. “We have a lot more people who need housing resources than we actually have the resources for.”
Williams described the effort as diversion, an effort to keep people from checking into the shelter in the first place. Helping 50 families with diversion efforts carries an estimated cost of $10,000 a month while providing the same number of families with emergency shelter costs $80,700.
Diversion has become another job duty for those working the front end of the coordinated entry system, Williams said.
“Ending homelessness is making sure people have rapid access to safe, long-term housing that’s sustainable to them,” Williams said. “We need to ensure we have a system in place that’s rare, brief and non-recurring. To get there, we have to end chronic homelessness, which is why our system has shifted to prioritizing our most vulnerable folks to the top.”
Ending homelessness doesn’t mean that no one will ever experience a housing crisis in Missoula, said Susan Hay Patrick, executive director of the United Way of Missoula County.
The city’s plan – one of hundreds now adopted across the country – is both aspirational and practical, she said. It serves as a blueprint to confront the issues that contribute to homelessness while saving costly public resources.
“Our homeless population is diverse, and everyone has a different reason for their homelessness,” said Patrick. “Some by their own hand, and some by the hand they’ve been dealt. There is no single solution. What works for one individual or family doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else.”