Missoula City Council approves temporary ordinance to house homeless in winter

Missoula residents gathered outside the Missoula County Courthouse in 2016 to mark the Winter Solstice with the Homeless Person’s Memorial. The night served as a reflection on those lost to homelessness. The city is working to ensure its homeless residents have shelter in extreme weather. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

With winter closing in, members of the City Council on Wednesday approved an interim ordinance allowing private facilities to serve as an emergency weather shelter for the city’s homeless and at-risk populations.

The decision was postponed last week, though it sailed through committee on Wednesday.

“Missoula lacks adequate services to address the increased need of our homeless and at-risk populations in our shelter system during extreme weather,” said Jen Gress of Development Services.

“This results in unsafe overcrowding in our permanent system. It also results in people remaining outdoors in encampments and other places not meant for human habitation during extreme weather.”

he city is currently writing a permanent ordinance, though it won’t be ready for implementation until mid-December. That’s too late to address this year’s challenges, and the interim ordinance approved Wednesday is intended to span the difference.

The city’s Office of Housing and Community Development has already secured a host location for the winter. That location wasn’t disclosed on Wednesday.

As approved, the interim ordinance changes definitions on use, including religious assemblies. It also establishes criteria for participating agencies and establishes a new section in city code under extreme weather shelters.

“An extreme weather shelter is temporary, and subordinate, to the primary use,” the new chapter reads. “Shelter facilities are intended to provide refuge for individuals who are homeless or at risk during extreme weather events.”

Those shelters must apply to existing codes regarding safety, such as fire and structural integrity. Management plans would be reviewed annually by Housing and Community Development.

“We’re all concerned over making sure spaces are safe and meet fire code and local building codes,” said Laval Means of Development Services. “Those will be looped in to evaluate spaces to make sure they’re safe.”

While the city moves toward a permanent ordinance, so too is it working in partnership with a developer to construct roughly 130 housing units on 4 acres of land donated by Missoula County off Mullan Road.

Of the 130 homes planned for the parcel, 30 will be reserved for individuals in the Coordinated Entry System. The remaining 100 units will go to those earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, or roughly $30,800 a year.

A portion of the project also includes permanently supportive housing that combines assistance with voluntary support services. A “navigation center” will be included in the development.

Eran Pehan, the city’s director of Housing and Community Development, said the project will help meet a local housing need, hopefully rendering the new ordinance unnecessary in the coming years.

“The navigation center would host that extreme weather shelter during the periods of the year where that’s required, and it would address any overflow needs from our current provider (Poverello),” Pehan said earlier this month.

“The approach we’re taking this year and the next three years would likely be temporary, but we’re developing a model we think will serve us well into the future.”