Homeless couple thankful for winter shelter’s Sunday opening in Missoula

An old church on Johnston Street has been converted to a winter shelter for the homeless, as COVID-19 has reduced the capacity of Missoula’s primary homeless shelter. (Alex Mitchell/Missoula Current)

For Tim and Chantelle, it’s their first winter homeless in Missoula. Coming from Washington and looking for work, it’s been uncertain where the married couple will sleep at night.

Due to the Poverello Center’s reduced capacity, down from 175 people to 88 people, the homeless shelter has had to use a daily lottery started in 2018 to determine who will be permitted to stay overnight.

“It’s a lottery for people to get in, and if you’re not on it, you sleep outside,” Tim said.

Tim and Chantelle usually set up a tent and blankets to keep them warm when sleeping outside. But it’s still cold for them.

“I got Stage 3 stomach cancer. It’s too cold for me,” Chantelle said.

Other options available to warm up have proved more limited due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was easier before COVID, because you could go to the library or Starbucks or those kind of places to stay warm or charge your phone,” Chantelle said. “Now there aren’t many places for us to go.”

Hearing of Missoula’s new emergency winter shelter appealed to them, and they were two of the several people waiting outside for the Johnson Street Emergency Shelter to make its debut on Sunday.

“It should give me time to get situated, find a place to live and now that it is a 24-hour shelter being able to come in and out helps me out a lot,” Tim said. “I don’t have to wonder if I’m going to spend the night in the cold.”

The Poverello Center is now operating an emergency winter shelter around the clock to provide suitable shelter, even during a pandemic. The new facility has 150 beds, each spaced six feet apart in a former church.

“We were really racking our brains on how we could do shelter this year. This was the option that worked best for us and provide for the adequate social distancing we needed,” Poverello Center Director Amy Allison Thompson said during the shelter’s open house last week.

The shelter was created to meet the needs of the Poverello Center’s reduced capacity of 175 people to 88 people due to COVID-19 restrictions. After its opening on Nov. 1, it will operate to March 31.

The facility is a quarter-mile north of Southgate mall on the 1900 block of North Ave. It’s city-owned, and plans for redevelopment will take place next year. Missoula City Council approved the use of $50,000 in funding for the shelter last month.

“It just came together,” City of Missoula Communications Director Ginny Merriam said. “We realized the Poverello Center needed some sort of shelter and this worked great. Both our city and county government were very passionate about achieving this.”

The new facility has 150 beds, each spaced six feet apart in a former church. (Alex Mitchell/Missoula Current)

Missoula County also paid $50,000 to support the shelter, and the rest was covered by $340,000 in COVID funding designed for homeless shelters.

People will be screened for symptoms before entering the shelter, and while there haven’t been any outbreaks currently related to the Poverello Center, each mattress will be numbered for contact tracing.

If people do have symptoms, they will be forwarded to medical professionals and recommended where to go from there. They could also likely utilize the non-congregate shelter offered by the Sleepy Inn, according to Allison Thompson.

Sack meals, as well as hot meals once a day, will be provided from the Poverello Center.

Merriam hopes it helps keep people out of the cold this winter.

“There’s some people who choose to stay outside at parks and other places over COVID transmission concerns, which and I hope seeing how this shelter works brings those people in from the cold, “ Merriam said.

And for Tim and Chantelle, it seems like it will.

“It looks warm and dry, which is good enough,” Tim said.