Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While Missoula subsidizes two other shelters for the homeless population, a strong showing of homeless advocates on Monday urged the City Council to keep open a third option open, that being the Authorized Camp Site (ACS), which is set to close next month.

Those on the council who support keeping the camp open, estimated by city officials at $90,000 a month, said the police department received too much funding when compared to the money allocated to homeless services.

In the end, however, the council voted to open and fund the Emergency Winter Shelter, located on Johnson Street, and close the Authorized Camp Site – an outdoor facility located off Reserve Street.

“Our current work is nowhere perfect. There's room to iterate and room to make it better,” said Mayor Jordan Hess. “Closing the Authorized Camp Site is a heartbreaking outcome. But the city and county set up the ACS as an emergency option during the pandemic. We did that as a stopgap measure. It was always contemplated to be a temporary measure to get us through to another time.”

Council member Daniel Carlino, who wasn't on council when the city first debated and opened the winter shelter, suggested residents of the Authorized Camp Site had nowhere else to go and the winter shelter wasn't a suitable option.

Carlino added that the city had “plenty of money,” and he sought to direct the city's surplus from the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for the outdoor camp throughout the winter.

“We have plenty of money to do that. We have no lack of money in the city,” Carlino suggested. “Not only do we have surplus ARPA funds, we've doubled our yearly police budget over the past 12 years while our population has only gone up 15%. To say we can't spend the surplus ARPA funds now to hold out for next year, this doesn't make sense.”

The surplus ARPA funds referred to by Carlino relates to $900,000, which the majority of the City Council has agreed to hold over in reserve for next year to fund emergency homeless services if voters this November deny a crisis levy.

Carlino sought to expend that access ARPA funding now, though others have described that as an unwise move. The city has two other homeless shelters that it's subsidizing this winter, and residents of the Authorized Camp Site have other options because of it, they said.

“We try to do as much as we can with what we have,” said council member Gwen Jones. “We have an Emergency Winter Shelter that's been tipped up for the last two years that's provided more capacity. We've never had anything like that before. We've got the Poverello and we've got the Emergency Winter Shelter. I know we have more need, and we're working on it.”

The city and county have directed several million dollars to prop up their homeless services in the past two years, donating public land for navigation centers and housing, and proving money to better pay homeless workers while funding shelters.

While the system isn't perfect, the taxpayers aren't an endless source of revenue, some suggested, and the city does provide options for those in need.

“We as a city remain committed to supporting the Authorized Camp Site's residents,” said Hess. “We're working to make this transition as smooth as possible. That work will continue. We'll continue to work with providers. We're balancing the needs of hundreds of houseless individuals in our community.”

Comments calling for the camp's ongoing opening said it would be the right decision, regardless of the cost. Despite the Poverello and Emergency Winter Shelter, they suggested residents of the ACS had few other options in sheltering over the winter.

Issues like addiction, disabilities, relationship violence and mental illness received notice, and many asked the council to keep the camp open for another month, until the end of the year, or until next spring.

Several members of the camp also asked for more time to find alternative lodging, and many said they were unwilling or unable to stay at the city's other shelters, including the Poverello and the Emergency Winter Shelter.

In their place, they wanted to stay at the camp where they said they could cook, own pets and live free of the rules of the other shelters. One man owned cats, another a dog. One walked from Bozeman to Missoula to stay at the camp. Another said he was surprised that such a camp existed.

They felt safe, they said, and had made the camp a home.

“They don't have enough space to be themselves,” one woman said of Missoula's other shelters. “Having space is really important, and the people at the Authorized Camp Site have the space they need.”

But Opponents, who didn't attend the meeting, in letters and social media posts described ongoing funding of the shelter as the continual “slow bleed” of the city's taxpayers. They noted that Missoula was already subsidizing shelter options for the homeless.

Eran Pehan, the city's director of community planning and the former executive director of the Poverello Center, said the Emergency Winter Shelter had the capacity to absorb those living in the Authorized Camp Site.

“We were at about 60 individuals (at the Authorized Camp Site). That has decreased over the last month or so, and we're now covering just a little under 50,” Pehan said of the ACS. “The (Emergency Winter Shelter) can accommodate about 130 to 140 individuals. The shelter has never operated at full capacity before.”