While some public comments urged Missoula city and county officials to turn a blind eye to homelessness and leave property taxes out of it, elected officials on Thursday called it an unacceptable option in the path forward.
Missoula County commissioners on Thursday, joined by Missoula Mayor John Engen, agreed to forge forward with the recommendations presented last week by an incident team charged with finding new ways to deal with the city’s homeless population.
“Some of the comments we received referenced Portland or Seattle, saying if we tried to address this in an active way, we’re going to become those cities,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “I’d turn that on its head. If we don’t take these kind of actions, that’s what we’ll become.”
In an effort to address homelessness in Missoula and its many forms, those assigned to a local incident team recommended three separate sites across the city that could accommodate sanctioned camping, temporary shelters and transitional housing.
While the costs haven’t been identified yet, Thursday’s action directs county staff to explore those costs in more detail, including the cost of building temporary shelters, opening camp sites, permitting certain uses and running utilities, among others.
Each decision made along the way would require budgetary approval, meaning the public should be able to track the costs of each action and how it plays into the city and county’s larger budgetary concerns.
“Through this process, we’re striking the right balance,” said Engen. “Our continued discussions will bear fruit. The way to not be Portland – or you name the community that’s struggling mightily to the point that it appears to be giving up – is to not give up.”
The first option on the table includes opening temporary transitional housing at the Sleepy Inn on West Broadway. It would accommodate those who have a housing voucher but can’t find a place to live due Missoula’s lack of housing.
The second option calls for a sanctioned outdoor campground to replace the illegal homeless camp under the Reserve Street bridge. The chosen site lies behind the Super Walmart on North Reserve at the end of Clark Fork Lane.
The final option recommended by the incident team calls for a safe outdoor space with hard-sided shelters and sanitary services. Two sites were selected for that purpose, including property near the county jail and another near the Missoula city cemetery.
“When we get these encampments in places like Reserve Street, the very act of being a living human creates a blight on the landscape, is terrible for the land, and it’s really unhealthy for the people involved,” said Slotnick.
“If we can create some type of better shelter, we can make sure that environmental problems don’t exist, and we can get people into a position where safety and security is part of their life, and they can begin to move themselves forward so we don’t become a Seattle or Portland.”
Yet most of the comments received by the county are opposed to the plan, and their opinions cross a wide range of concerns. By providing more services, some believe that Missoula’s homeless problem will grow worse since more homeless will come.
“There was strong belief that by providing services, Missoula attracts more homeless people and many communities, but especially Bozeman, bus people to Missoula because of the services provided,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury. “There was strong agreement that transients should be bused out of Missoula, and that Missoula should reduce the number of services provided and existing laws should be enforced, including the arrest of people who are homeless.”
Others opposed to the plan to move forward said the city and county should criminalize homelessness, though that’s not statutorily possible. Others said they didn’t want their property taxes used for homeless services and that government shouldn’t play a part in serving the homeless.
Commissioners described such comments as “abhorrent and unacceptable.”
“We’re not going to buy bus tickets to ship people to some other community based on the assumption they’re shipping people here,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “I saw very few specific alternatives to the locations the incident team identified. If you don’t like the array of options brought before us, what else do you suggest?”
While Engen described the recommended approach as experimental, he said the city and could would work together to pursue the solutions recommended by the incident team.
“We’re in lockstep in saying that by doing nothing, we’ll get a problem that’s far worse than what we’re seeing on the ground today,” Engen said. “The alternatives some folks are suggesting are easy to spout in a voicemail or email, but these are real human lives we’re talking about.”