Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While urban camping and the issues it brings has become a heated debate this summer, the city's housing program and its non-profit partners are exploring short-term solutions to address the problem while also working toward long-term plans to provide more shelter and housing options in Missoula.

This week, members of the city's Houseless Programs touched on the solutions they're currently exploring, from new shelter models to permanent supportive housing. While the list isn't all-encompassing, it currently includes 14 solutions, including those requested by some members of the City Council in a contentious meeting last month.

“It's reflective of the solutions that are most related to what City Council has been asking of us, or suggestions that come before council, and solutions we've come to test in the last few years,” said Emily Armstrong, the city's Houseless Programs manager. “The two biggest barriers are provider capacity and sustainable funding.”

Of the 14 options listed on the study sheet, Armstrong said that only one has sustainable funding, that being Blue Heron Place – a permanent supportive housing project at the new Trinity apartments. But even that project lacks the long-term sustainable funding needed to provide supportive services in its navigation center.

“One-time city funding isn't sustainable funding,” Armstrong said. “It's not appropriate for us to make requests for all the different areas of the spectrum. We need other funding sources to support programming in more effective ways than one-time city funding.”

Urban camping in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Urban camping in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

Still, the city's Houseless Programs already has submitted four budget requests this year, and three of them have been included in the mayor's proposed budget. That includes funding for the Johnson Street shelter, a homeless operations specialist, and creating a new homeless strategy.

The fourth request sought to cover start-up costs for the Trinity navigation center.

“If we received grant funding for programs and services, we may be able to come back for a budget amendment in this fiscal year to receive that funding to cover startup operation costs to open that facility,” Armstrong said.

City officials declare a homeless emergency

Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess earlier this year declared an emergency around homelessness and its lack of shelter space – a move that enables the city to levy two emergency mills to fund year-round shelter at Johnson Street, which it hasn't yet done.

While it once served as a winter shelter, the Johnson Street facility will open year-round this fall, with operating costs of around $1.2 million. But maintaining the shelter over the long term – and at that location – hasn't been vetted by City Council, and residents in the surrounding neighborhood haven't had a chance to weigh in.

Recommendations to open the shelter came from a strategy group comprised of homeless advocates.

“The primary recommendation is that we work to reopen the Johnson Street shelter on a year-round basis as soon as possible while we continue on a parallel track to identify a plan to open a permanent year-round shelter to supplement our shelter options in Missoula,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of housing and planning.

The Poverello Center, which opened just a decade ago, remains full. And while some believe a second shelter has become necessary, it comes with its own challenges.

Among them, Pehan said selecting a site isn't easy given land costs and other economic factors. Permanent funding also plays a role, and any new shelter will require a partner to manage and operate the facility.

Pehan said it could take around three to four years to locate a site and complete construction, if that's a direction the city's residents would like to pursue. Even that remains unknown at this point.

“We have to have conversations as a community on how we continue to meet the needs on a short-term basis while we work toward the long-term,” said Pehan. “There's a great danger in jumping to a solution without doing that work because we might invest a lot of money into a facility, open it up and find that it doesn't get used.”

Vetting and funding

The defunct authorized camp site has been highlighted as a reason to vet a plan before implementation. The former camp been dubbed a failed model for a number of reasons.

Among them, Missoula's non-profit partners didn't want to manage the camp, and they also struggled to secure the required staffing. The camp also became a source of human trafficking and drug use, and it posed other health and safety risks, city staff has said.

“It's a non-starter if we don't have a provider in our community who is able and interested in taking something like that on,” Armstrong said. “We've seen what happens when we don't have that kind of structure.”

Drug needles near a Missoula park occupied by urban campers. (Courtesy photo)
Drug needles near a Missoula park occupied by urban campers. (Courtesy photo)

Several members of City Council said that while deeper communication is beneficial to the discussion on homelessness, it should also include a list of what the city and county – and other partners – are already doing.

Some members of City Council and certain members of the public in recent months have suggested that the city isn't doing much at all to resolve the issue. That's not the case, others have said, and what is being done gets lost in the conversation.

“There's a considerable amount of more funding that we're putting towards supporting people,” said council member Heidi West. “I think those numbers are considerably higher. We're putting an incredible amount of resources toward providing resources, and we need to do a better job at highlighting that.”