By Martin Kidston
It was little more than four years ago when Michael Moore left his job as a newspaper editor to serve as the community impact manager for United Way of Missoula County. Early on, his new responsibilities marked an exciting change – challenging enough without additional duties.
But slowly, as many jobs go, other responsibilities crept in. It started when the city formed a task force to write a plan to end homelessness. The group assigned to the effort called it Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.
Moore would be called upon to not only fine-tune the plan using his skills as a former editor, but also to manage the plan’s implementation and progress. He accepted the challenged with skepticism.
“I knew right off the bat the name of the plan was sort of in conflict with reality of what any community would be able to do,” Moore said. “Anybody whose been in social services knows we’re not going to end homelessness.”
While the name may be in conflict with reality, Moore has seen the city mark progress in reducing homelessness. He’s taken digs along the way, often dealing with skeptics who criticize what they see as a lack of success while not offering many solutions of their own.
Still, nearly three years after the City Council adopted the plan, Moore remains proud of the community’s effort. Seated in his Alder Street office at United Way, he reflected on the plan, its progress and its future as he prepares to leave his post with United Way as Reaching Home’s manager.
“We’ve got a lot of people in our town who are hard workers, have jobs, and they’re really close to the margin,” Moore said. “To them, a medical emergency for a kid, a divorce, a bout of domestic violence, even a busted-down car might mean they’re not going to make it next month.”
Moore described Missoula as a city on the rise. The economy has improved, the city is awash in a building boom and the quality of life continues to attract new residents. But challenges still face the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Wages are far below the national average and the price of housing remains out of reach for many, especially those on a fixed income.
While Reaching Home can rewrite the model, find new revenue sources and propose new programs, Moore said, it cannot fix income inequality, and it can’t fix the housing market.
“There are national forces at work that provide a pretty stiff headwind,” he said. “We’re still in a community where the wages and the cost of living don’t match up. We’re going to keep facing that national economic headwind.”
Moore believes many of Reaching Home’s critics don’t understand the forces at play. They also mislabel the city’s homeless population as lazy, addicts and “welfare moms.”
But in reality, Moore said, roughly 50 percent of the city’s homeless or near homeless are responsible, hard working people. He’s seen two-parent families work full-time, still unable to make ends meet. Their downfall isn’t the result of their effort, but rather, he said, their service-industry wages.
“Their aggregated paychecks are going to be $21,000, minus taxes, in a town where the rent of a two-bedroom apartment is $800 a month,” Moore said. “You throw in a couple kids, daycare, insurance, and it’s damn hard to make it. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where that’s going to change in communities like Missoula, Bozeman, and even Helena now.”
Two years ago, a man named James McKean entered Moore’s office at United Way. McKean had worked most of his life as a line cook before falling on hard times. He’d come to Moore looking for help and Moore offered it, scrambling to find McKean a place to live.
Moore even paid from his own pocket to help the man rent a room.
When asked about the successes he’s achieved over the past three years, including that episode with McKean, Moore shrugged it off, giving credit instead to Missoula’s larger service community. There are a lot of people working on homeless issues, he said, and they’re committed to finding solutions to a persistent national problem.
“The service community is very committed to the goals of the 10-year plan, and everyone who’s a part of that community is cognizant that you’re rowing into a stiff wind,” he said. “They’re going to keep after it. Whoever comes after me will be a worthy successor.”
In the nearly three years that Reaching Home has been in place, Moore said community groups such as the YWCA, Womens Opportunity Resource Development Inc., and the Human Resource Council have housed more people than ever before in Missoula through rental assistance programs.
Several groups have also come together to form Partners for Reintegration, an effort to house prisoners looking for a new start. Other efforts are underway as well, including plans for a Missoula family shelter.
“In the next year to 18 months, it’s something we’ll see,” Moore said. “Even if rental assistance programs keep working the way they’re working, we’re still going to see those families on the margin that are going to suffer acute bouts of homelessness. We need a place for those people to go.”
Moore sees the new Poverello Center as a model of success, one that has already done much to alleviate homelessness. But even so, it can’t meet the needs as a family shelter, he said.
“It would be great if we could magically house every family that became homeless,” said Moore. “But we can’t. We found there are probably 30 families on any given day that weren’t in a house, but were couch surfing or on a waiting list trying to get help. It would be great if those kids, even if they were coming to a shelter, knew where their next meal was coming from at night.”
As homeless experts explore the possibility of a family shelter, Mayor John Engen is also working to create a new approach to tackle homelessness. In June, he unveiled the makings of a new housing policy, saying it was time to create a meaningful plan to provide affordable housing and make progress toward ending homelessness.
The plan places Eran Fowler Pehan, the former executive director of the Poverello Center, as the director of the city’s new housing office. It also appoints Ellen Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, as deputy chief administrator of a newly created office of “redevelopment, housing and economic development.”
While the plan has been politically controversial, particularly its impact on the Department of Grants and Community Programs, Moore sees it as a step in the right direction, and said Pehan was perfect for the job.
“With me leaving, things are little in flux right now,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is certain right now what the next iteration of Reaching Home will look like. It may stay at United Way forever. The mayor, when he announced the housing division, there was some reference to Reaching Home and that it may be coming under the housing division.”
Susan Hay Patrick, chief executive officer for United Way of Missoula County, said that while her organization would continue to house the Reaching Home position if needed, more resources could be placed toward the challenge if it were housed under the city.
“I really do feel that because government is the largest source of funding for housing and homeless services, it probably makes sense to house it in a government office,” she said. “We’ll continue to maintain our private-sector involvement. We will continue to raise money and resources and rally support for it, just as we have been.”
Patrick also praised Moore for the work he’s done over the past three years.
“We’ve been really proud under (Moore’s) leadership to incubate Reaching Home under United Way,” Patrick said. “He worked tirelessly with a lot of heart and passion.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org