Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Work to address homelessness in Missoula has been paying off, with the number of unhoused individuals now back to pre-pandemic levels, city officials said this week.

However, funding needed to maintain a number of local programs may be difficult to find later this year, especially as the one-year contract to operate the Johnson Street Shelter runs out.

In a mid-year update, houseless programs manager Emily Armstrong named the many contracts administered by the city, including operations and outreach at the Poverello Center. The $211,000 program is paid for through the city's general fund, and that funding should remain available annually, so long as there's a need.

But the Johnson Street shelter, which opened late last and is funded for one-full year at $789,000, doesn't have a stable funding source. The number of shelter residents have fluxuated from a low of 26 to a high of 145 in a single night, officials said.

“The Johnson Street shelter was very much needed and we need to find the money for that because the need will continue to be there, as far as we can see,” said council member Gwen Jones. “I think about it all the time and hope other people are losing sleep over it too.”

Other homeless programs in Missoula have been funded by grants, and many are temporary, including a $190,000 grant to fund one full-time homeless specialist for two years.

Armstrong said the city is working to fill the position, and the grant is contingent upon the city funding the position once the grant funding runs out.

“We're in the hiring process as we speak,” said Armstrong. “The grant award covers two years of staff funding, but funding for year two is contingent upon approval to continue funding the position after year two ends.”

Other programs geared toward the homeless will also need future funding, including $35,000 to fund a homeless programs staff member. The position is funded for now, the city said, though the program will likely request funding next year as well.

The city also is facing challenges in launching the Trinity Navigation Center, Armstrong said. The center was included in the Trinity housing project off Mullan Road and, once it opens, it will provide a range of critical serves for the homeless ranging from behavioral health support to housing.

Armstrong said the city is working with several partners to identify a contractor to run the facility and the funding to pay for it. It's not yet known where that funding will come from, she said.

“Those two pieces have been the key challenge in this project and we continue to work with partners to try to solve for the provider capacity to operate that space, and to seek funding through a number of different sources to make that possible,” Armstrong said.

While funding the city's various homeless programs without the aid of the pandemic-era American Rescue Plan Act may be challenging moving forward, city staff said the number of homeless individuals is dropping.

The Johnson Street shelter.
The Johnson Street shelter.

Sam Hilliard, the city's coordinated entry specialist, said that roughly 586 households, listed by name, are experiencing homelessness in Missoula. But during the pandemic, the number climbed as high as 730 or more. The difference suggests the city's array of programs may be working, she said.

“We've steadily seen a decrease in the number of households experiencing homelessness in the community,” Hilliard said. “I've stopped trying to predict the future because there's a lot of factors that impact folks. But from my vantage point, I'm seeing very similar household counts to what was happening pre pandemic.”

Housing boom has helped

Aside from the city's homeless programs, the recent boom of affordable housing projects also has helped. Last year, the Villagio opened and is currently 50% full. The Trinity apartment project also opened.

Together, homeless advocates said the increase in income-restricted housing is giving those in need new opportunities.

“Between that (Villagio) project and all the different locations within the Trinity project, we've seen a really significant impact already in our houseless work,” said Armstrong. “The availability of that housing opens up other housing in our community. We are absolutely seeing impacts of that, even with the challenges the Villagio has had with leasing up.”

Other programs that are harder to measure may also be helping, according to Eric Legvold, director of impact for the United Way of Missoula County. Among them, he named the agency's Housing Solutions Fund.

Last year, he said program helped more than 250 household by covering everything from rental-application fees to paying off utility arrears or overdue rent to keep people housed. But funding the program year-after-year remains difficult and relies upon city contributions.

“It continues to be a struggle with the starts and stops of available funding,” he said. “Sustainable funding for that program would be in excess of $300,000 a year. But I think there's a multiplier effect with the program and it's something that should be considered.”