City: “Low-barrier” Missoula shelter needed to supplement Pov in winter months

City leaders and housing advocates are in early conversations over ways to accommodate Missoula’s homeless population ahead of the winter season, including those struggling with drugs and alcohol.

Last winter, the Salvation Army opened its doors as an overflow shelter, providing low-barrier access during overnight hours. While the effort was successful and brought homeless residents off the street, it was also temporary.

A long-term solution is still needed, advocates say.

“We’re totally in this brainstorming and idea phase,” said City Council member Bryan von Lossberg. “I think there’s quite a bit of consensus that a main facility is really important, likely for the bulk of the people we need to serve.”

The Poverello has long served Missoula’s homeless residents and remains the city’s primary facility, though it also has rules on sobriety. The Salvation Army opened last year as an overflow shelter and operated with fewer rules, allowing it to reach another element of the homeless population.

On the busiest winter night, the two facilities housed 245 residents, well beyond the capacity of the Poverello alone. The need for a second facility with low-barrier access is needed before winter’s return, said Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

“The Poverello provides a phenomenal service to the community right now for folks who are able to refrain from drug and alcohol use,” Pehan said. “What we really need to fill that gap and keep folks safe and alive through the winter is that low-barrier model, where folks who are safe and engaging in appropriate behaviors can come in, but access isn’t determined by sobriety.”

Housing advocates, including a number of organizations, are working to address the city’s homeless challenge from both a short- and long-term approach.

The long-term effort includes growing the city’s Coordinated Entry System. Last week, the City Council directed $25,000 in federal funding to expand the program’s reach. It looks to move chronically homeless individuals into permanent housing.

But advocates are also looking for short-term solutions to provide safe refuge for other elements of the homeless population, including those who are harder to serve. Building the needed housing stock will take time and money, and winter won’t wait.

Several homeless individuals have died of hypothermia in Missoula in recent years.

“Our goal for the next several years is to identify that short-term plan which will include securing a physical location or potentially multiple locations that can meet the need,” Pehan said. “Our planning work is approaching those two specific components, the physical location and the social support and staffing of the facility.”

While the conversations are still young, solutions implemented in other cities are being considered. Among them, it could see the faith community and other organizations step in to serve certain individuals.

Still, Von Lossberg said, finding a single location outside the Poverello has its advantages.

“The single facility has a lot of advantages relative to economies of scale when it comes to staffing and transportation issues,” he said. “It needs to be a low-barrier facility. It has to be something that served similar to the way the Salvation Army served.”