Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County this week signed a number of contracts with local providers that infuses the organizations with a combined $900,000 to provide a range of social services, from housing stabilization to transportation.

The program, known as the Community Assistance Fund, is generated by local taxes and helps the organizations provide services that wouldn't otherwise be offered. It also positions those groups to vie for federal grants and other funding opportunities.

“The purpose of the fund is to provide basic needs to the residents of Missoula County,” said county grants administrator Nancy Rittel. “Missoula County isn't just handing this out. These agencies have leveraged these funds to over $5 million. It's a good story to tell.”

The fund is generated by taxes levied by Missoula County to “provide human services and establish a safety net” to meet basic human needs, according to the county. The program dates back to Montana's territorial days and has undergone a number of iterations, from “The Welfare” fund in the 1930s to “The Poor” fund just a decade ago.

The receiving agencies include the United Way of Missoula County, the Montana Human Resource Council, Homeword, the Salvation Army, Garden City Harvest and Crosswinds Recovery Center, among others.

“We tried to see if there's any other counties in Montana that has this kind of fund. As far as we can tell, there's not,” said Ritell.

Among the various contracts, the Salvation Army will receive $11,000 for its emergency transportation program, which covers the cost of a bus ticket or gas card to get someone to a destination that “improves their life.”

The Salvation Army also will receive $66,000 for its winter shelter rental assistance program to help families stay housed during the winter months. Other housing-related contracts include Homeword, which will receive $16,000 for its HomeOwnership Center program, and United Way, which will receive $80,000 for its Housing Solutions Fund.

Commissioner Josh Slotnick said helping keep people housed costs less than dealing with homelessness.

“Being homeless costs society a whole bunch of money in a variety of ways,” he said. “Helping someone with $400 to $700 to absorb a big financial hit, when they're living in a situation where they're spending 70% to 80% of their income on rent, prevents long-term homelessness. Prevention is cheaper than dealing with the consequences”

Other contracts include $52,000 to Crosswinds to support its residential services staff, and $44,000 to Garden City Harvest for its food security project. The largest contract of $96,000 went to the Hope Rescue Mission to fund personnel and operating costs associated with the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space.

“It's pretty cool to see what we're doing now dates back to at least the 1930s,” said Slotnick. “It's people in Missoula investing in each other's best interest.”