Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With future funding in question and faced with a problem not likely to go away, Missoula's two candidates for mayor have different takes on the city's approach to homelessness and what resources are needed to address it.

Addressing members of City Club Missoula this week, both candidates agreed with an audience member's assessment of the issue – one of “conflicted compassion.” They also agreed that housing was the ultimate solution.

But housing takes time and funding, and the issue is front and center now.

“We absolutely have a humanitarian crisis and issue we're working through, and we have a public safety and financial issue,” said candidate Andrea Davis. “Missoula needs a comprehensive plan to address homelessness. The staff has this on their work plan. It's a matter of the executive (mayor) making sure staff has the leadership to get this done for our community.”

Candidate Mike Nugent offered a similar take.

“It's tough in Missoula right now, and it's tough in a lot of places,” he said. “Housing is a big part of that. If people have a safe and secure place to lay their head at night, they have better outcomes, and their children have better outcomes.”

Nugent said that while the city is working to address the issue and find solutions, the conversation often wraps all unhoused residents into a single category. The face of homelessness is what people often see downtown, though it's not an accurate picture of the larger homeless population, he said.

Identifying the different issues that led to one becoming homeless is key to a stronger response. It should consider women fleeing an abusive relationship, families that lost a job or missed a rent payment, or those struggling with addiction, he said.

“When we talk about the unhoused in Missoula and we talk about homelessness, people tend to talk about it as one large group, as if they all have the same experiences and they all arrived at this situation from the same place,” he said. “We have families that are homeless because they have a bad break and miss their payment. We need to focus on housing as a big part of that.”

Andrea Davis and Mike Nugent.
Andrea Davis and Mike Nugent.

At the same time, Nugent said, the city needs to lean on its service providers and, when allocating taxpayer dollars, accountability must come into play. Budgets are limited and residents need to feel safe when enjoying the amenities their tax dollars are funding.

“When we are utilizing taxpayer resources to fund things like opening the Johnson Street shelter, we need to make sure we're carrying out the other part of the bargain, which is assuring you the parks, the trails, the things you use, are open and available for their intended purposes,” he said. “We cannot simply add more to our budget and not add the accountability piece as well.”

Davis didn't mention accountability in her approach to homeless, rather describing it as the “head and heart” approach. No matter how the problem is tackled, she said a variety of solutions will be needed.

She also said the city may not get it right every step of the way.

“At the city – and the reality of our budgets – we absolutely need to be taking a look at the kind of initiatives we're putting forward, being transparent with you, evaluating what's working and what's not working, and decide what changes we're going to make,” she said.

Davis also expressed support for a controversial approach that would designate a sanctioned camp that includes needle disposal and other sanitation. The issue has been debated on City Council but has yet to win wide acceptance.

“We need to talk seriously about using our resources to have a sanctioned camp spot in our community, where we can actually provide some humanitarian care and sanctity, but protection and predictability for the rest of our community,” said Davis. “When it comes to bathrooms, garbage, somewhere needles can be put, and security, service providers can actually find people on site.”

Davis added that the city's response to homelessness can't be paid for with reductions to the police department.

“We will not make the same choice that Portland made, or Seattle. Having laid off nearly one-third of their police force is not something we're going to do here,” she said. “The Missoula police force, through our Crisis Intervention Team and Mobile Support Team, are actually cutting edge in this state when addressing behavioral health care.”

Nugent also praised the Missoula Police Department, its officers and other first responders for the work they do with the homeless. He suggested that relationship could be taken further in bolstering the city's homeless response.

“I'd actually like to see us assign a handful of police officers to the unhoused route, because I think we can build better relationships and try and cut off some of these problems before they become major issues without writing a ticket,” Nugent said. “Every time I've ridden along with our police officers, I've been amazed at how well they actually know the unhoused community.”

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