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‘Best option available:’ City of Missoula set to open Johnson Street shelter for winter

The city’s Johnson Street property will serve as an emergency winter shelter for the second year in a row.

City officials said opening an emergency winter shelter for the second year in the Midtown district may not be the most ideal option on the homeless front, but it’s the only option available and with winter pressing in, time is of the essence.

Members of the Missoula City Council voted 6-2 on Wednesday to open the Johnson Street facility again this year. Capacity at the Poverello Center remains capped under CDC guidelines due to Covid-19, and additional space is needed to accommodate those without shelter during the winter months, advocates argued.

“That’s the goal every year,” said Emily Armstrong, the city’s Reaching Home coordinator. “We’re trying to figure out the best solution, given Covid and the need for additional spacing, and the fact that our shelters are still at half capacity.”

The Johnson Street shelter can accommodate 150 people and will be open around the clock under current plans. It will also include hygiene facilities, including showers and laundry.

The facility will cost roughly $616,000 to operate from November to April. The city will contribute $311,000 in funding from the American Rescue Plan while the county provides $100,000, half coming from ARPA. The Montana Human Resource Council will also contribute $205,000.

Armstrong said that a different location was sought and a call for community support was issued, but it didn’t net any viable results. That left the Johnson Street facility as the only option, given that the city owns the property.

“There were no new viable options, so we decided to move forward with the Johnson Street shelter and continue operating there with some changes to make it a stronger operation this year,” Armstrong said.

Opening an emergency shelter for another winter wasn’t controversial among members of the council, though the location was. The Johnson Street facility is located next to a new city park and is largely surrounded by homes.

Sandra Vasecka, who represents the ward in which the shelter is located, said she received complaints last year from residents concerned over issues caused by some shelter tenants, such as defecating in yards, drug paraphernalia left in parks, and vandalism.

However, the ward’s other council member, Julie Merritt, said she received similar complaints and worked to connect those residents to city resources for help. This year’s shelter will take lessons learned from last year, she noted.

“While our efforts to put security in place and to communicate with people aren’t going to prevent there from being any problems, we still need a place for people to be,” said Merritt. “This is the best place that’s been identified for people to be. Not having this open in my opinion is not an option.”

While the Poverello Center works to hire the staff needed to operate the Johnson Street shelter, the city is working to implement a security plan and contract. The contract isn’t yet finalized, though it will likely include other homeless sites as well, such as the temporary safe outdoor space planned off North Reserve.

“There were some takeaways from last year and how to make this work better all around,” said council member Gwen Jones. “A privacy fence has gone up around this facility, and there’s currently a security plan that’s being created. That’s a parallel process that will come through council in the coming weeks for that contract.”

Efforts to provide resources for the city’s homeless population during the winter months isn’t new, and it has seen a number of iterations over the years. Initial warming sites were located downtown and were operated by nonprofits, though the resources were limited and conditions weren’t always ideal.

The city later partnered with the Salvation Army, which operated a winter shelter for roughly two years. But then the pandemic hit, forcing the city to seek other options.

Council member Brian von Lossberg, who represents much of the downtown area, said conversations around homelessness and the issues it can cause are nothing new. While he understands the letters and calls from constituents upset about the associated impacts of sheltering the homeless, keeping people alive is a higher priority, he said.

“It’s an incredibly heartbreaking problem to work on, and a difficult and challenging problem,” he said. “Yes, a few people can put a negative light on an effort that’s absolutely demanded by our sense of human decency and concern for others. But I don’t have any regrets at night about the difficult conversations I’ve had with constituents around the issues they’ve had to deal with around the neighborhood.”

A formerly homeless man returns the shopping cart he borrowed earlier in the morning after using it to transport goods to his camp under the Reserve Street bridge. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Missoula County last week also took action on the homeless front. While commissioners have received criticism from some lamenting the cost of addressing the problem, the county maintains that today’s efforts are intended to serve as a bridge to the future, when other options become available.

Those future tools include a number of housing projects that, together, will provide nearly 400 units of workforce and affordable housing at a number of locations, including 30 units reserved for the homeless.

One project, the Trinity, will also include an on-site navigation center. Once open, it will provide a number of intensive services, including those targeted for the homeless. Until then, the Johnson Street shelter will have to serve, council members said.

“This is not an ideal solution, but we need to be thinking of creative solutions to get us to the bridge when other options come online,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “They will be a significant resource for folks at the lowest end of the economic spectrum in our community. In the meantime, we need to keep people safe.”

A bridge to Trinity: Missoula’s investments in homeless intended as placeholder until future options open