Aislin Tweedy

(Daily Montanan) Missoula’s Mayor Jordan Hess declared a homelessness and sheltering state of emergency this month as a crisis center in Billings reports more people who are homeless for the first time and a shelter in Great Falls sees a growing need for its services.

Hess signed the emergency proclamation last week — the first of its kind at least in Missoula — that said cities around the country are facing an increase in unsheltered people, and cities in the West are most affected. He said the pandemic’s pressure on housing prices has been most acute in the West.

“I made that determination based on the continued prevalence of folks living outdoors without adequate shelter and to urgently address the lack of adequate shelter space,” Hess said in an interview about the declaration.

In Montana, affordable housing has reached a crisis level, and the need for homes is outpacing the ability of developers to build them and government and nonprofit officials to provide support.

However, the emergency proclamation in Missoula will allow the city to levy additional tax revenue to the tune of $500,000. Hess said that money will go toward addressing homelessness.

Jim McCormick, the executive director of the Great Falls Rescue Mission, applauds Hess for his proclamation and for trying to do something to help. But he said people need support beyond housing.

“They need to take it a step further than just providing a place to crash,” McCormick said. “They need to provide some supportive services as well, so that they can hopefully curb what’s going on and help those folks into permanent housing, where they can be successful.”

The Johnson Street shelter.
The Johnson Street shelter.

The Great Falls Rescue Mission can house as many as 32 families, and currently the Mission has 20 families on the waitlist, a significant increase from last summer, he said. Those who are on a waitlist are asked to call in daily to check availability, McCormick said.

“We have three families moving into permanent housing this week, or early next week, so three will be off the list soon, ” McCormick said. “Many couch surf until they can get in or seek help in other towns.”

McCormick believes that finding permanent housing for people is important, but so is providing supportive services for mental health, drug abuse, alcohol abuse or a substance that affects their cognitive ability. He said that if you put people in a home or a shelter without supportive services, then you’re not helping them, but enabling them.

“I think we need to take it to the federal government. But we don’t need government programs,” McCormick said. “To do this, what they need to do is make funds available for private industry to reopen halfway houses or assisted living homes for those with mental health issues or those with addiction issues.”

In Hess’s proclamation letter, however, he highlighted that in 2017, the Montana Legislature cut mental health case management funding, setting up thousands of people around the state for failure. He pointed to an emergency shelter as part of the solution.

“We as a city need to continue to look at all the ways that we can advance this or that we can work on this issue. Reopening the emergency shelter is part of the solution,” he said.

He said the goal is to reopen the Johnson Street emergency shelter, although that’s still several months away.

“Other parts of this solution are going to be continuing to work with other service providers to make sure that they succeed, and it’s a complicated issue. And it’s going to be slow and complicated to solve,” Hess said.

The Poverello Center shelter and soup kitchen in Missoula will run the day-to-day operations of the Johnson Street shelter when it reopens with funding from the city and county, Hess said.

Outside the center, a small sea of tents has emerged this spring, and Executive Director Jill Bonny said that homelessness is more visual right now than in the winter, when the emergency shelter was open or when an authorized camping site was available. It served 100 people before it closed last October to shift resources to the emergency shelter instead, according to the Missoula Current.

Meanwhile, the Poverello can accommodate 130 people, and it’s full every night. Bonny said if Missoula had 100 more spaces for people to live, they wouldn’t be seen living along the river and next to the Poverello.

“They are camping in these spaces because they don’t have other options,” Bonny said.

Bonny also said Missoula needs more shelter beds and spaces for people to be able to exist in a dignified manner. But she said homelessness is not a problem that one organization or government agency can solve.

“We need to collaborate and work collectively to make a difference,” Bonny said, “As the mayor stated on Friday, doing nothing is unacceptable. I am optimistic that we can continue working together to find solutions for our community members who are struggling.”

The Poverello Center works on a lottery system, where individuals who want to stay overnight sign up for the lottery, and people are randomly drawn every night until the capacity is reached, Bonny said.

“It is not illegal to be poor (and) not have options for housing or shelter,” Bonny said.

In Billings, the Director of the Community Crisis Center MarCee Neary said that they have seen an increase in people who were housed and have become homeless for the first time. They get this data from their Homeless Management Information System database and clients report whether they are homeless.

“We do not have a waiting list, as we are open 24/7 and provide crisis care for counseling, assessment, and stabilization using service,” Neary said. “We triage and prioritize persons based on need, clients wait to be admitted or wait for crisis care. But persons can walk in anytime and not be turned away.”