Nonprofits team up to open homeless encampment on Missoula’s south side

A formerly homeless man leaves his Reserve Street camp to get some goods at stores located across the river. The city will close the camp and open a new legal camp on the south side of the city off Highway 93 and Miller Creek Road.(Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

With pressure mounting to close the illegal Reserve Street homeless camp, community partners on Friday said they’ll open a legal camp on the south side of Missoula, offering tent shelter in a secure environment to the area’s unhoused homeless population.

The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space will accommodate roughly 40 occupants over the course of the winter. It’s designed to house those who are reluctant to enter Missoula’s other congregate shelters, including the Poverello and the new winter shelter in the Midtown district.

Eric Legvold, director of impact for United Way of Missoula County, placed the project’s cost at around $100,000. The funding will be reimbursed through state and federal grants, he said. The project is solely an effort by private, nonprofit groups.

“This has been a very fast-moving project focused on responding to the pandemic’s increase in our community’s unsheltered population, as well as the looming winter season,” he said. “It’s a safe, healthy, secure staffed resource and service-rich environment that prioritizes people experiencing homelessness who aren’t accessing existing services or resources, and who chose not to live in congregate shelter.”

Project backer’s didn’t disclose the camp’s exact location, saying only that it was located on private property off Highway 93 and below Miller Creek Road.

The camp will include 20 two-person tents, sanitation facilities and a warming shelter.

“It will provide access to temporary tent shelter and warmth, proper sanitation and waste removal, frequent wellness and COVID screenings, and 24-7 staffing providing outreach and onsite case management,” said Legvold.

The camp will also ensure social distancing and cater to adults. Backers of the project expect it to house a population similar to the Reserve Street homeless camp, which is expected to “see some changes,” as one project partner stated it.

The Missoula City-County Health Department has pressured the Montana Department of Transportation to close the Reserve Street Camp.

“Reserve Street is really an illegal camping spot,” said Jim Hicks, executive director of Hope Rescue Mission. “We know there’s no space that’s going to be ideal. We looked at several different sites and vetted them out. This one obviously came to the top.”

The camp will mark the latest effort in Missoula to address the homeless challenge. The city’s existing shelter at the Poverello was forced to reduce capacity due to the pandemic. In response, the city and county contributed $50,000 each to open a second winter shelter on Johnson Street. The remaining $240,000 in costs are covered by COVID funding.

Earlier this year, the city also spent $1.1 million to purchase the Sleepy Inn on West Broadway to serve as an isolation shelter for Missoula’s homeless and at-risk population during the pandemic. That shelter has seen roughly 170 occupants, one county official said this week.

The new homeless camp planned on the south side will cost an estimated $100,000, though the funding is also being provided by state and federal grants and is strictly a function of a coalition of private, nonprofit groups.

“Our staffing will be trained and be there to build the relationships that help make connections that some of the homeless have not been able to have,” Hicks said. “There will be some rights and responsibilities that those on site will have to agree to. It can’t work without all of us doing our part.”

Susan Hay Patrick, president and CEO of United Way of Missoula County, said the city has a moral responsibility to care for those in need. She said the camp will provide a safe and healthy option to the homeless challenge.

But it’s also temporary, she noted, and not everyone will be supportive.

“We know this project won’t be universally embraced,” she said. “We’re likely to be criticized, laughed at and demonize for launching this effort. But we’re accustomed to hearing poor people get blamed for their poverty and homeless people get blamed for their homelessness.”

She added, “We know that homelessness and its very diverse causes are deep-seated problems our country has yet to marshal the collective will to solve. We know this is the right thing to do.”

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