Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday moved a proposal from committee that would commit the city to begin master planning the Johnson Street shelter property for redevelopment within one year, with a goal to remove the building within three years.

The proposal, presented by Mike Nugent, Sandra Vasecka and Kristen Jordan, is intended to give surrounding residents assurance that the shelter is temporary and the property will be redeveloped as intended when the city purchased the property in 2017.

The measure passed from committee on a 10-1 vote and is expected to pass on Monday night with backing from the Johnson Street neighborhood.

“The neighborhood is really nervous about this. It's been longer than what they anticipated,” said council member Amber Sherrill.

The city applied American Rescue Plan Act funding to open the facility as an emergency winter shelter during the pandemic when the Poverello Center had to reduce capacity. It has operated every winter since, filling what homeless advocates have described as a need.

But this year, the shelter will open as a year-round facility, prompting concern from residents that it's inching closer to becoming a permanent fixture in their neighborhood. The city purchased the property from Montana Rail Link in 2017 with plans for redevelopment, a goal the measure advanced on Wednesday would assure the city continues to pursue.

Still, the shelter is only funded for one year and next year remains in question. City staff are working on a strategy to identify a long-term solution for sheltering the homeless and how to pay for it. That could take time to achieve.

“There is no permanent funding source for that shelter. We're talking about this like it's a permanent situation,” said council member Heidi West. “There are a lot of unknowns even for next year. Those details have to be figured out. In the absence of knowing things, giving the neighbors some sort of direction of what's happening here is the kind thing to do.”

Council member Daniel Carlino, who cast the only dissenting vote, also offered an amendment that would require the city to choose another suitable site for a shelter to replace the Johnson Street facility before demolition starts.

His amendment failed on a 10-1 vote.

“This is the first year we've had a city-funded, year-round shelter. I can't imagine what it's going to be like getting rid of this asset without replacing it,” Carlino said. “I know we've directed staff to look at long-term solutions, but we need to have it in writing that we're going to open a new shelter before demolishing this community asset.”

Several council members said the City Council has already directed staff to identify other shelter options and how to pay for them. The city has begun that process and has already expressed a number of potential funding sources, though none of them are guaranteed.

Funding, programming and where to locate a future shelter present questions that don't yet have answers.

“Our houseless strategy will help us identify what type of shelter and what type of programming associated with that shelter will best serve our community. Then we need to identify funding. Those are the first key steps,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of planning and development. “If we don't know how we're going to fund it and we don't know what we need, citing a new facility won't be that effective.”

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