Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The city and county of Missoula this week solidified an agreement to fund and operate a number of programs etched within a homeless shelter plan launched last year.

City officials also acknowledged some of the concerns logged by business owners around one Reserve Street shelter, but said they'd work to address them in a separate discussion.

The interlocal agreement represents a 50-50 split in continuing Operation Shelter and its various programs through the current fiscal year. The program was launched at the height of the pandemic to provide more services for Missoula's homeless population.

“Over the course of the last year-and-a-half, staff at the city and county have been hard at work implementing many of those recommendations,” said Montana James, deputy director of the city's housing office. “This interlocal agreement memorializes the funding and operating relationship between Missoula County and the city in Operation Shelter.”

The City Council approved the agreement on Wednesday and county commissioners did the same on Thursday. The agreement calls for an equal share of costs to run the programs with Operation Shelter, and it details the procedures for making any changes to the program.

If voters approve the crisis services levy this November, it would trigger a new interlocal agreement, James said.

“In 2021, the city and county embarked on a joint incident command process to meet the demand for an increase in houselessness,” said James. “It resulted in a number of recommendations to increase options in the shelter continuum.”

The incident team formed by the city and county in 2021 recommended various sites around the city to accommodate legal camping, temporary shelter and transitional housing. Shelters were operating a reduced capacity at the time due to the pandemic, prompting the need to provide other services.

Since then, the city and county have opened up a sanctioned camp site off Reserve Street, allowing them to close the illegal site nearby. But some business owners near the sanctioned camp have logged complaints about an increase in crime, drug paraphernalia and vandalism.

As a result, council member Sandra Vasecka this week voted against the agreement between the city and county. Vasecka represents the ward in which the shelter sits.

“There's a lot of frustrations by the business owners in the area of use,” Vasecka said. “We've been managing it really well and we've alleviated some of the frustrations by the business owners. But I feel I have to represent them on this one.”

Others acknowledged the concerns of the business owners but said that issue, while needing to be addressed, didn't relate to the agreement between the city and county.

“We did hear from a lot of businesses, the things happening over there. But I have a lot of the faith in the new approach being taken,” said council member Kristen Jordan, who also represents the ward. “There's going to be coordinators out there. There's going to be more police presence. We're going to work on vendors to make sure services are being provided in a humane way. I'm excited to see where this project goes, and also make sure the local business owners are being protected as well.”