Advocates for Missoula’s homeless want shelter, transportation until weather warms

Councilwoman Julie Merritt was praised by advocates for Missoula’s homeless residents for her volunteer work at the temporary downtown warming shelter. (Missoula Current file photo)

Advocates for Missoula’s homeless population thanked the Missoula City Council on Monday night for helping to provide warm refuge in the evenings and then bus rides to the Salvation Army’s overnight shelter during the recent frigid weather.

“You saved lives,” said Michael Workman, one of a handful of advocates who have attended council meetings throughout the winter, demanding a downtown shelter for homeless residents who are turned away after the Poverello Center reaches its nightly maximum.

“There is so obviously a need,” said Workman, who asked that the warming shelter and bus rides continue until nighttime temperatures are consistently above freezing – not just for the two weeks prescribed when the emergency plan was announced last Thursday.

“My main concern,” Workman said, “is that this needs to be a permanent program.”

Missoula needs a long-term plan that includes another permanent downtown shelter staffed by paid professional social and mental health workers and others, he said.

The temporary warming shelter in Mountain Line’s downtown transfer center is “only a Band-Aid, but a necessary Band-Aid for the time being, and it will save lives,” he said.

Workman said he was representing the Democratic Socialists of America, Food Not Bombs and the General Defense Committee.

This winter’s problems stem, in part, from the city’s requirement that the Poverello Center turn people away once it reaches its 175-person overnight maximum.

While the Salvation Army opened a nighttime shelter for the winter with $50,000 in community donations, it does not open until 10 p.m., and its Russell Street building is a considerable distance from downtown, too far to walk in freezing weather. In fact, many of those needing shelter are disabled and could not walk that far in the best of conditions, Workman said.

As subzero temperatures and wind chills dropped into the valley late last week, Mayor John Engen announced that a diverse coalition of community groups would provide warm indoor space after dark, then bus transportation to the Salvation Army’s overflow shelter at 10 p.m.

Mountain Line buses are delivering about 45 homeless residents to the shelter each weekday night, and the University of Montana’s DASH bus is doing the same on weekends.

Missoula police are providing public safety services at the transit center. And volunteers from the citizen advocacy groups, local faith community and a few council members are volunteering to oversee the warming center.

Workman and others said still more volunteers are needed, and urged all City Council members and Engen to sign up for a volunteer shift. They thanked Councilwoman Julie Merritt for volunteering over the weekend, and bringing a pot of chili.

To sign up for a volunteer shift at the downtown warming shelter, go online to the Missoula Rises Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/563298447213940/.

Gill Wiggin made a similar appeal to the council and mayor during Monday night’s public comment period.

“I want to begin by thanking you,” he said. “The effort in the last week to get the bus center warming shelter up and running has not gone unnoticed by myself and my comrades. Finally, it feels like our efforts, our comments and our demands have not fallen on deaf ears.”

But Wiggin said much more work is needed to provide for Missoula’s homeless residents.

“This is just the start,” he said. “I’m afraid this Band-Aid fix will become the only demonstrable effort that comes to fruition this winter.”

Wiggin said the shuttle service to the Salvation Army needs to continue until the emergency shelter closes in the spring. In addition, the downtown warming shelter needs paid staffing from social workers, mental health professionals and others, he said.

Later in the meeting, Councilwoman Merritt said she is “absolutely certain” that the emergency warming shelter saved lives over the weekend.

She added her thanks to the Missoula police officers who’ve been stationed at the shelter, defusing any tensions with skill.

Councilman Jordan Hess, who as the transportation manager for the Associated Students of the University of Montana helped arrange the nightly bus transportation to the Salvation Army, added that he isn’t forgetting that the warming center is a temporary solution.

“It’s really a disaster relief solution brought on by extreme cold temperatures,” Hess said. “I, like many of you, am committed to a long-term solution that we’ll figure out in due time with the proper process and the proper resources. For now, this is the best we can do and we are doing it.”

City of Missoula opens warming shelter for homeless residents