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Operation Shelter: City and County of Missoula unveil trio of options for homeless

A formerly homeless individual returns a shopping cart barrowed from a local store to transport supplies back to his camp under the Reserve Street bridge.  The city and county plan to release options to the camp site, and other ways to accommodate the city’s homeless. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

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 on Thursday to accommodate legal camping, temporary shelter and transitional housing.

The proposal, dubbed Operation Shelter, would help fill three separate issues identified in the city’s homeless population, said Adrian Beck, the director of emergency management in Missoula County and head of the incident management team assigned to the task.

“Our current homeless shelters are operating at 50% capacity due to CDC guidance for Covid mitigation,” said Beck. “This is not unique to Missoula and right now, there is no current timeline on when that guidance will change.”

Beck also identified the city’s housing crisis and lack of affordable options as a contributing factor to the existing homeless challenge.

“We have several individuals who have housing vouchers and are connected to case management, but there’s no housing for them to go into,” she said. “It exacerbates the number of people who are unsheltered.”

While shelters are operating at reduced capacity, a number of agencies in state and local government also are pushing to end illegal camping under the Reserve Street bridge. What’s more, the outdoor space set up off Highway 93 on the city’s south side was intended to be temporary, and a replacement site is needed.

To address all three classes of homelessness, the incident team assessed 21 sites across the city, both private and publicly owned. Scoring criteria included sanitation, security and access to services, among others. The private properties were eventually eliminated, leaving a number of publicly owned sites as an option.

“City and county owned parcels rose to the top,” Beck said. “We need to look at options on a continuum, and deploy three different locations that have a different look and feel to them.”

The first option includes the need for temporary transitional housing to accommodate those with a housing voucher but are unable to be placed due to the city’s lack of housing. It would also serve those who become homeless for a short period of time.

Beck said occupants would be accepted to the site through case management and referral. The incident management team is recommending the continued use of the former Sleepy Inn on West Broadway to serve as transitional housing, at least on a temporary basis.

“The recommendation would be that a portion of the rooms at the Sleepy Inn be held in reserve for (Covid) isolation purposes so the Poverello can continue operations,” Beck said. “The rest of the facility can be realized as this temporary transitional housing. It could be operational in a very short amount of time.”

The incident team also found the need to establish a site that could serve as a legal, minimally supported campground. It would effectively replace the illegal campsite under the Reserve Street bridge.

Beck said the chosen site, located on Clark Fork Lane behind the Super Walmart on North Reserve and near the poplar farm, could be supported by sanitation. It would also enable homeless advocates to conduct outreach.

“If we’re trying to address illegal camping in the urban wild, we need to be intentional about whether it’s easy to find,” Beck said. “This other location, wherever it is, needs to be easy to find, and it needs to be accessible to emergency services.”

Crews set up a temporary outdoor homeless camp off Highway 93 in Missoula last fall. The city and county are proposing a new site on city or county land to serve the same purpose. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Beck said the third need follows the success of the temporary safe outdoor space established last fall off Highway 93 on the south side of Missoula. Officials have been looking for a new site that could provide a service-rich environment and accommodate hard-sided structures to withstand all seasons.

The incident team recommended two sites on Thursday, including city property near the Missoula Cemetery and county property off West Broadway near the county jail. Either site would require 24-7 operational management and include shower and bathroom facilities.

“I don’t think anyone has in the back of their mind these will be forever sites,” Beck said. “The benefit of building temporary hard-sided structures is that it can be packed up and moved away.”

While city and county officials didn’t make a decision on Thursday, they lauded the process behind the recommendations offered by the incident team. Being unhoused, they agreed, was a public health issue.

“The commissioners and I, along with the Missoula City Council, will be operating from a collective understanding that doing nothing is not an option, and doing nothing will further exacerbate an already difficult situation and ultimately cost more than anything we can do that’s proactive and intentional,” said Mayor John Engen. “Whatever solutions we come to won’t be universally applauded. But it’s important that we move forward and move forward as quickly as we can.”