With a second shelter for emergency weather now in place, the city is looking to the future and the eventual opening of a navigation center, one that's expected to reach deeper into Missoula's homeless population.

The center is planned as part of a 202-unit affordable housing project, including 30 units reserved for low-threshold housing. While the housing will go far in meeting local needs, the navigation center will play its own role in serving the homeless.

“Some just won't come to the Pov, even though they're able to,” said Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of the Poverello homeless shelter. “A navigation center is really tailored to support that population, and it's tailored as a come-as-you-are, low-barrier model.”

In past years, the Poverello has posted certain rules for its clients, turning away those who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. That alienated a portion of the homeless population, including those struggling with substance abuse.

The shelter recently reversed those rules and implemented a new policy based on behavior. But others with mental health issues may avoid the shelter's group setting. The navigation center will address both populations, according to Eran Pehan, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development.

“The location of the navigation center is within walking distance to one of our largest encampments,” said Pehan, noting the Poverello's recent success in connecting with the city's unsheltered population.

“I can't underscore enough how tremendous that is and how much work that took for outreach workers on the ground, building trust with this extremely resistant population,” she added. “I think that's a phenomenal example of the power of our current system and how the navigation center will play into that.”

The center will offer a suite of services, from food security to treatment for substance abuse. It could also provide mental health services, life skills and financial training, reintegration for the jail population, case management and an on-site clinic, among others.

“It’ll have a multitude of resources within that building to help this population be successful,” said Keenan Whitt, the project manager with BlueLine Development. “It’s an opportunity for us to partner with area nonprofit and service providers and create a model that doesn’t duplicate current services in the community.”

This winter, the city and its partners notched an agreement with the Salvation Army, which will serve as an emergency weather shelter in addition to the Pov. Trained staff from the Poverello Center will manage both facilities.

Homeless advocates will operate under that agreement for the next three years, or until the navigation center opens.

“We have a solid (emergency weather) plan in place, thanks to the Poverello and Salvation Army, and we have likely three more years where we need to plan for that,” said Pehan. “But that planning is logistically challenging and places a significant burden on our providers. We're looking forward to having a more streamlined, more permanent solution in the navigation center.”

Until the center is completed in 2022, the Poverello's Homeless Outreach Team will continue its efforts to connect with hard-to-reach segments of the homeless population. Over the past year, the team has helped house 20 people who have been living unsheltered in local encampments.

“They really build long-term relationships with folks who are fearful of accessing traditional services for a variety of reasons,” Thompson said. “They come down to their camps and bring them socks and sandwiches and start that conversation, and over time connect them with resources and then housing.”

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