Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) In a decision announced this week, the city and county of Missoula will close the Authorized Camp Site off Reserve Street next month and place their limited resources toward operating the Emergency Winter Shelter instead.

The city's housing and homeless advocates said the decision was not an easy one to make. But staffing and necessary hookups for winter survival at the authorized outdoor camp presented significant barriers.

“As we look toward opening the Emergency Winter Shelter, it became very clear that we're not equipped to operate the Authorized Camp Site through the winter months,” said Emily Armstrong, the city's homeless initiatives program manager. “That site was stood up as an emergency, temporary solution, and the future of that site was never certain. At the current time, we face very significant barriers to that operation, which include insufficient budget.”

The city and county opened the Authorized Camp Site earlier this year near city property off Reserve Street. As part of Operation Shelter, they directed a number of resources to make it possible and worked with partners to operate the facility throughout the spring, summer and fall.

Much of the costs were funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, though that funding is now running out. Armstrong said there is no pot of local funding to continue the camp's operation and equip it for winter living.

“It does not have adequate infrastructure, particularly for winter months. There are no water hookups at that site, nor is there electric hookups,” she said. “We operated that site during some very cold weather months last year. I can tell you personally that it was incredibly challenging. We faced consistent barriers in keeping people warm and tents dry. It was an extremely difficult operation.”

Along with the basic logistics of operating the outdoor camp during the winter, staffing also presented a challenge. Armstrong said that the city and county are basically operating a 60-person shelter with two staff members.

Staffing was a problem last year as well when the Emergency Winter Shelter opened for the season. The city was forced to provide additional funding to the Poverello Center to help it recruit and retain the workers needed to manage the winter shelter.

“I wish we weren't in this position,” Armstrong said. “But the reality is that without the funding and the infrastructure and staffing, we cannot operate the Authorized Camp Site for the next few months, especially with winter weather approaching.”

Limited Funding and Difficult Choices

While the decision has proven controversial, the city and county, aided by their service partners, are working to transition homeless residents at the Authorized Camp Site toward other services, including the Emergency Winter Shelter.

The outdoor camp will close on Nov. 16 and the winter shelter will open on Oct. 31.

The city and county of Missoula will direct $700,000 to the Emergency Winter Shelter using funding from the American Rescue Plan.
The city and county of Missoula will direct $700,000 to the Emergency Winter Shelter using funding from the American Rescue Plan.

Several residents of the Authorized Camp Site urged members of the City Council this week to reconsider closing the camp, including one man who could no longer stay at a Portland shelter because of his pet.

“The Authorized Camp Site is what I have. Closing it would leave a lot of us with virtually no place to go,” he said. “It puts us back into the situation we were in before the authorized camp site. If you close it down, you're basically putting us back on the street.”

When the City Council approved its Fiscal Year 23 budget, it directed a portion of what remained in its pool of ARPA funding to support a number of homeless and service programs this year. It also left some funding in reserve for next year in case voters don't approve a Crisis Services Levy this November.

As proposed, the levy would raise 20 mills, or around $5 million a year, to fund a range of services the city and county created using federal pandemic funding, including its homeless shelters.

But the outcome of the levy is uncertain and the late Mayor John Engen chose – and the City Council approved – to reserve some ARPA funds for next year.

Still, council member Daniel Carlino has sought to use that funding now, regardless of the levy's outcome. On Wednesday, he attempted to direct that funding reserve to keep the Authorized Camp Site open throughout the winter.

“The Emergency Winter Shelter is not an alternative to everyone who stays at the Authorized Camp Site,” Carlino said. “It's up to us to make a budget amendment to keep the Authorized Camp Site open for the winter. There is no lack of money to keep the camp open.”

Carlino's effort to tap more ARPA funding failed to win approval.

Preparing the Next Homeless Strategy

The debate over the city's array of homeless camps and services is playing out as Missoula's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness itself comes to an end.

City staff and service advocates are looking at the plan's successes and failures in an effort to move forward. The plan officially ends this month.

“We're working on strategies that were created during that plan, even as the plan ends,” Armstrong said. “We're evaluating programs and projects in Missoula, and our goal is to continue building the spectrum of options for Missoulians. Some of these strategies have been developed. Some are hopes and goals that we'll orient towards.”

Armstrong said it's now evident that Missoula needs to be more organized about social spending “and willing to spend more local money on housing.” It also needs to make services, treatment and case management more available to those who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless.

Emergency shelter must remain available and supported by city, county and private funding, she added. The Emergency Winter Shelter fits that effort and will provide another option for homeless residents other than the Poverello.

The city and county will each contribute $350,000 in ARPA funds to operate the Emergency Winter Shelter this year for a total cost of $700,000. The Poverello has been contracted to manage and operate the winter shelter.

Despite its addition to the city's safety net and the funding the city and county have allocated to operate it, closing the Authorized Camp Site has dominated much of the talk around homeless services. It was considered a low-barrier option for homeless residents not wanting to stay at the Poverello.

“We're between a rock and a hard place, where we're trying to make sure we've got some funds for next year to keep some programs going if we don't have the levy come through,” said council president Gwen Jones. “The Emergency Winter Shelter was a very good tool last year. Opening that up creates more capacity. I know it's not a perfect fit for everyone, but we're looking at our resources and trying to leverage them to help the most people.”

The city will also change its security protocol and provider at the Emergency Winter Shelter this year. It has contracted Black Knight Security for $500,000 – a cost that will be evenly split with the county and funded by ARPA.

“It's clear that our security needs are changing,” said Armstrong. “We have shifted or security model to be responsive to that.”