Missoula’s homeless residents will be provided with new arrangements for staying warm during the evening hours beginning Friday, but may have more difficulty reaching the Salvation Army’s overnight shelter on Russell Street.

The city of Missoula announced a new, temporary plan for keeping homeless residents safe during the ongoing cold weather. An earlier agreement was only intended to last two weeks and expires on Thursday night.

Under the new plan, the Poverello Center will allow all who need a warm place to stay in its shelter until 10 p.m.

After that time – or before, if the homeless resident wants a city bus ride to the Salvation Army – all those who do not have a bed at the Poverello Center must leave.

The Salvation Army will continue to provide cots and blankets at its overflow shelter on Russell Street, and will open 30 minutes earlier – at 9:30 p.m. The organization opened its emergency winter shelter earlier this year, after community members donated $50,000 needed to provide staff for the overnight hours.

But getting to the Salvation Army will be more difficult starting Friday.

In recent weeks, homeless residents who the Poverello Center could not accommodate overnight could use the Mountain Line transfer center in downtown Missoula for warming until 10 p.m.

At that time, residents were provided with a bus ride – either by Mountain Line or by ASUM’s Dash bus – to the Salvation Army.

Those dedicated, extra bus rides will no longer be available after Thursday.

Instead, homeless residents can take Mountain Line’s last No. 2 bus of the evening at 8:45 p.m., which stops at the Salvation Army. That bus runs Monday through Friday.

On Saturday, the last No. 2 bus leaves the downtown transfer center at 5:15 p.m. Anyone who takes that bus is left with about a four-hour wait outside the Salvation Army before the overnight shelter opens.

There is no bus service on Sundays, and the university’s Dash bus will no longer provide the extra weekend service to Russell Street.

Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of the Poverello Center, said she is concerned about the lack of dedicated transportation under the new arrangement – which will continue through March 31.

“We have a concern about that gap, and have expressed it to the city,” she said in an interview with Missoula Current. “It’s not ideal, but it’s the way things will be through March.”

At that point, there will be no nighttime warming shelter, as temperatures likely will remain above freezing at night.

Thompson said the city of Missoula is paying the Poverello Center $8,000 to expand the hours it can provide shelter from the cold for the next five weeks. That money comes from the Office of Housing and Community Development.

Eran Pehan, director of the city's Office of Housing, said she too believes the transportation gap is problematic, but said there simply were no resources available to provide buses for the remainder of the winter.

"Our nonprofit partners are stepped up to the plate and are doing heroic things to make sure people have a place to be safe 24 hours a day," Pehan said in an interview. "But we have not been able to close that transportation gap for the rest of this winter. We do, though, hope to be able to close that gap as we debrief from this season and plan for next winter."

Work to find a long-term solution to provide winter shelter for Missoula’s homeless residents began earlier this week.

“As our population rises overall, we are going to continue to have challenges. This will be an ongoing situation,” Thompson said. “The issue will persist until we have solutions in place for the overall housing shortage in our community.”

This week’s initial meeting was heartening, according to Thompson, in part because the effort is intended to avoid another emergency situation, in part because the discussion involves a wider group of community members and groups than in the past.

“What I’m excited about is there is more collaboration than there has been historically with this issue,” she said. “We’ve needed warming shelter and overnight shelter every year. It’s not a new concern.”

Thompson said a number of ideas are on the table for next winter, and the Poverello Center is open to discussing a variety of possibilities. But, she said, there is a need for additional overnight shelter during the winter and for a warm place for homeless residents to stay after dark.

At the center of the long-term discussion, Pehan said, is the "incredibly difficult balance between providing for the emergency need – to keep people safe throughout the winter – without abandoning our larger goal of providing permanent housing to end homelessness in Missoula."

"Our goal is to decrease the number of homeless people," said Pehan, so she questions whether Missoula should invest in more permanent shelters in the community. "But we do need a safe place for people to go who have no place else to go, 24 hours a day. We need an adequate emergency response while we put our investments into permanent housing."

Missoula does need a “wet” shelter, Thompson said. “I do believe we need a space for individuals who are struggling with substance abuse.”

The Poverello Center does not allow anyone to stay overnight if they have been drinking or taking drugs.

Through March, the Poverello's evening warming shelter will be open to all, Thompson said, under relaxed rules that “focus on behavior.”

“As long as people are getting along, they are welcome to be in this space until 10 p.m.,” she said.

Everyone will know before 5 p.m. whether there is a bed available for them at the Poverello Center that night, so those who must leave for the Salvation Army shelter will know well in advance, Thompson said.

Next winter's solution will be "robust," Pehan said, "and will be in place before winter comes. In Missoula, it's too easy to emerge from the winter season and to just want to move on into spring and summer. We're not going to do that. We will start planning immediately for next winter, and have a plan in place before we get to June, July and August."