Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The Missoula City Council on Wednesday voted to set aside a minority push to secure more funding to keep an outdoor homeless camp open through the winter.

The debate capped what amounted to 12 hours of discussion over the past few weeks and ends any confusion over whether the camp will stay open past this month's deadline.

The Authorized Camp Site, most agreed, was tipped up as a temporary and experimental option and was never intended to serve as a long-term housing solution to the handful of residents who continue to occupy the facility.

“It's one of many different services provided in our community, and I feel that's really getting lost in this conversation,” said council member Heidi West. “There needs to be a better model moving forward. But we're losing sight of the other services we offer. At some point, we need to trust our staff and our service providers.”

The city's housing experts, in conjunction with their nonprofit partners, opted to close the Authorized Camp Site last month. The reasons were many but touched on the challenges and cost of winter operations.

Security also played a role, as did sanitation and water.

“The Authorized Camp Site, as it currently stands, is not a safe alternative,” said council member Mike Nugent, adding that the city could be held liable for any mishap. “Any future outdoor solution needs to include some better tracking and exit planning so residents understand this isn't a permanent housing solution. The focus right now must be on the transition. We cannot fully staff the ACS for a few residents who don't want to use other options.”

The Emergency Winter Shelter.
The Emergency Winter Shelter.

With only a limited amount of funding left from its allotment of the American Rescue Plan Act, the city and its partners opted to funnel most of it toward the operation of the Emergency Winter Shelter and keep any remaining revenue in place for next year in case voters don't approve a crisis levy during next week's election.

But council member Daniel Carlino has pushed to access that cash reserve to keep the outdoor camp open through winter. His efforts have been rebuffed by a majority of the City Council each step along the way.

“We heard from a lot of residents who explained to us the multitude of reasons why they can't go to other shelters,” Carlino said Wednesday. “When you get rid of the lowest barrier shelter, we'll be displacing the most vulnerable Missoulians without viable options.”

But others contend there are viable options, and the taxpayers can't foot the bill to accommodate less than a dozen residents who have declined to accept those other shelter options.

As of Tuesday, the city said one resident of the Authorized Camp Site has since moved to veterans housing, three to the new Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, and two others to the Emergency Winter Shelter.

Of those remaining at the outdoor camp, 18 are eligible to move into the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space. Only 11 residents of the outdoor camp have said they won't move to the winter shelter, according to Eran Pehan, the city's housing and development director.

“They don't feel that's an option that serves them well,” said Pehan. “Two believe they cannot access services there. We're working with the Poverello to clarify that.”

Pehan said the city and its nonprofit partners are working to find options for the few residents who remain at the outdoor camp.

Two homeless individuals in downtown Missoula. (Missoula Current)
Two homeless individuals in downtown Missoula. (Missoula Current)

Those who pushed the city to keep the shelter open described Wednesday's decision to table the issue as one of political expediency.

“It feels real disingenuous hearing you talk about how everyone is a human being, but then it's tax dollars this and that,” said one critic. “I understand these are complex issues, but virtue signaling isn't helpful. How much you care is reflected on how you spend your dollars. Your general fund continues to give and give and give to the police.”

While most council members expressed frustration that other funding sources and options weren't available, they also praised the city's efforts to find solutions, including the shelters it currently provides and the funding it gives to some nonprofit partners to aid in their homeless work.

“The (Emergency Winter Shelter) has saved lives in the past,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “Using the very end of our ARPA dollars, not knowing what happens next year and possibly being in a situation where we couldn't run the Emergency Winter Shelter terrifies me.”