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Missoula mayoral candidates face off in virtual debate as election looms

(KPAX) — MTN News on Tuesday hosted a debate between Missoula mayoral candidates John Engen and Jacob Elder with the General Election just one week away.

The debate covered housing, economics, taxes and climate change — all of the issues at the forefront of Missoula today. And it wouldn’t have been a debate without mention of the city’s homeless crisis.

Moderators asked if homelessness can be solved and whether it’s the responsibility of the government to solve it. As with the majority of the debate prompts, incumbent John Engen and his contender, Jacob Elder, answered in stark opposition to one another.

Engen reminded a virtual audience of the various affordable housing projects he’s implemented in the past, though Elder questioned his term’s impact. Engen said he believes that if the community works together, experiments, and invests, it can make a dent in homelessness.

“I believe that if we have better treatment, if we have better access to mental healthcare, if we have kiddos who have a better start at the beginning of their lives, they feel loved, they’re well fed, they’re cared for, they get a better start in life,” said Engen. “Some of what becomes a challenge later is all about how those kids were treated in the beginning.”

Engen also noted that the mayor’s role isn’t a job of “mutual exclusivity,” but a holistic approach to a multitude of problems, homelessness being one.

Throughout the debate, Elder questioned Engen’s connection to the community. And for Elder, fixing homelessness begins with what he considers the underlying issue.

“What we’re gonna do, instead of this housing-first approach the mayor has, we’re gonna take care of the underlying issue. The underlying issue of mental health issues and substance abuse issues,” said Elder. “We want to fix those things and say ‘Okay, after doing that we get you employed, and then get you into affordable homes.’”

On multiple occasions, Elder mentioned Engen’s years in office and assured a virtual crowd that his leadership would be different and full of change.