By Martin Kidston
When Eran Fowler Pehan looks back on her last several year as executive director of the Poverello Center, several things come to mind. The center’s good work stands large among them, though she also considers the new relationships she helped forged around the issue of homelessness.
And where relationships are strong, collaboration often follows.
“What I’m ultimately the most proud of is creating relationships and collaborations with people in the community that maybe didn’t really understand the Poverello before,” Pehan said. “Behind every homeless person you see on the street, there’s a very real, devastating human story. We can’t forget that. It can’t get lost in the shuffle.”
Pehan will be leaving her post at the Poverello Center early next month when she takes over a newly formed office of housing – a post created by Mayor John Engen to address Missoula’s larger housing needs.
Before dashing out of town for a weekend getaway, Pehan considered the road ahead and what the city’s homeless shelter has taught her over the past several years. Under her watch, the organization built a new facility and did so on budget. It also expanded its programs, allowing it to reach more people than ever before.
“One thing I’ve learned, while good and genuine intentions are what bring all of us into this work, the complexity of the issues demand that that’s not enough to get the job done anymore,” Pehan said. “We have to be smarter than we’ve ever been before about how we address these issues. We have to constantly evaluate our efforts and find out what’s working and what’s not working and change course, and we have to build partnerships like we’ve never done before.”
The Poverello Center completed its first full year of service at its new facility last year, along with several new programs. Over the course of 2015, it provided more than 1,200 nights of medical respite to 60 unduplicated men and women.
Pehan said the shelter’s medical residents would have logged additional days in the hospital. While they were ready for discharged, they had no home to be discharged to.
“Their illness or injury required them to have a safe, dry place to recover,” Pehan said. “We served them here at what you can imagine is a fraction of the cost of what it would take to serve them in the hospital. It’s a cost-saving measure to the community.”
Last year, the shelter also served more than 70 veterans per night in the veterans transitional housing program. What’s more, Pehan said, the Poverello now serves 100 percent more women that it did at the old facility in downtown Missoula.
“We know it’s not an increase in homelessness, but rather, women who would previously sleep in their car or stay in an unsafe situation now feel safe and secure coming here,” Pehan said. “They’re coming in off the streets, getting the support they need and moving into permanent housing faster.”
The shelter’s new $5 million facility opened in December 2014. Aside from the improved living conditions for the shelter’s residents, the new facility has helped the nonprofit shave expenses in areas like food, enabling it accept donations it once had to turn away.
The new building is also ADA accessible.
“Folks who use a wheelchair don’t have to sleep on the cafeteria floor because they can’t get to the third-floor dormitory anymore,” Pehan said. “It’s been amazing to us what we’ve seen as a shift in behavior when we provide them a dignified, safe place to be. People are making changes much more rapidly. They’re really taking care of one another in ways we didn’t see in our other building.”
Despite the building’s modern accommodations, it’s still a building, though what it represents is something more. To Pehan, it stands as a testament to the partnerships the organization has forged across the community.
In her new role as head of the housing office, Pehan will continue to nurture those partnerships. The city’s housing needs continue to grow and Missoula’s nonprofits can’t do the work alone, she said. The city will look to partner in the effort and help bring additional resources to the table.
“The nonprofit community is doing a heroic job in meeting the need, but unfortunately, the need continues to grow,” Pehan said. “It has outpaced most of the funding available to us to serve people. It’s no longer a matter of increasing funding and serving more people. It now requires us to serve people more effectively and more creatively with less resources.”
Pehan plans to approach her new position much like she did when she first took over as executive director at the Poverello Center.
“I’m incredibly excited to swim upstream a bit and start to address things on a more systemic level,” she said. “It will be a lot of learning and a lot of communicating with people in Missoula who are doing this great work around housing – housing affordability and housing availability.”
The search for a new executive director to lead the Poverello Center through its next chapter closed last week, and Pehan said the job produced a deep stack of applicants. The organization’s board of directors is leading the process and will begin to cut the pool of applicants to a handful of finalists over the coming weeks.
Whoever assumes the job will inherit an organization in good financial standing.
“We’ve been in this building now for two years, our financial and operational sustainability is the best that it’s ever been,” Pehan said. “We have an amazing team of professionals who operate our programs with such competence and compassion that it really inspires all of us every day. We’re really excited to bring a new leader in and see how they build on the mission and the services we have right now.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org