Julie Barrett still remembers the date like it was yesterday, the December morning when she took her kids to a house and opened the door with her own set of keys.
For the first time in more than a year, she had a place to call her own.
“It’s really, really a blessing to know that I have less stress on me when it comes to my kids having stability, and to know there was an opportunity,” said Barrett. “My landlord is amazing. He didn’t judge me – he didn’t judge my situation. If people had more help like that, or encouragement, it wouldn’t feel like you’re failing all the time.”
Barrett was one of the lucky ones to find stable housing through a federal rental-assistance program that has brought a little extra funding to Missoula. But dozens of others who have prequalified for the program remain on the waiting list, unable to find housing despite their voucher.
So on Tuesday, members of the Missoula Housing Authority, the United Way of Missoula County and the Poverello Center, along with other community partners, launched a new campaign to house 40 families like Barrett over the month of March.
It’s an ambitious task, but those behind the push remain optimistic that willing landlords will step forward to help solve what proponents say is a community problem requiring a community solution.
“We think it’s the right thing to do,” said Susan Hay Patrick, the CEO of United Way. “It’s just wrong for people to live in homelessness when they have the resources to be housed. Those resources are in place. What we need are the relationships with landlords and property managers.”
The campaign, dubbed “March Home: 40 Homes in 40 Days,” is looking for landlords or property managers willing to work with other community partners to take a bite out of homelessness by working with clients in the rental assistance program.
The program comes with benefits to the landlord – benefits that proponents say make renting to a client with a voucher a safer bet than many other potential tenants.
“March Home has tangible benefits,” said Patrick. “It has resources that make renting to the folks we’re trying to house less of a risk than renting to people in Missoula’s primary rental market.”
To achieve that, the program provides landlords a double deposit, a vacancy payment and an extra month’s rent to cover damages above and beyond the security deposit – if such damages occur at all. Renters in the program also have access to supportive services to ensure they remain good tenants.
“The rent is paid directly from Missoula Housing Authority to landlords and property management companies, so there’s no having to track down tenants to get them to pay the rent,” Patrick added. “It also reduces fees to advertise vacancies, because Missoula’s coordinated entry services will serve as a referral source for potential tenants.”
The rental vacancy in Missoula currently sits at 2 percent, a figure that basically means that housing is difficult to come by. That which is available often overlooks those who are most at risk of becoming homeless due to a a range of issues, such as poor credit history, a criminal background or a lack of documentation.
Many rentals also require a tenant to earn three times the amount of rent. For those struggling with housing stability – or working to achieve it – leveraging such resources can be impossible when earning minimum wage.
But none of that matters under the program’s assurances.
“A lot of the folks we’re trying to get housed initially are the ones that haven’t been housed for five or more years, so credit is a struggle for a lot of people,” said Sam Hilliard, a member of the Poverello Center’s homeless outreach team. “The rent is going to be covered – the utilities are going to be covered.”
The new campaign remains tucked within the larger plan to end homelessness in Missoula. While homelessness itself is a complicated issue, it’s exacerbated by the city’s tight housing market and low wages.
And while housing 40 families in the month of March won’t end homelessness in Missoula, Jim McGrath, the admissions and occupancy manager at the Missoula Housing Authority, said it would serve as a major community achievement.
“We work with over 300 landlords in town, so there’s a lot of them we have established relationships with,” McGrath said. “But really, at this point in time in Missoula, there are not that many units available. We’re essentially wanting some of those folks who haven’t been thinking about this before – maybe they have one or two units but aren’t aware of us – we want to get them on board.”
For more information on the program, called Jim McGrath at the Missoula Housing Authority at 406-549-4113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.