Joined by housing experts, the city of Missoula on Wednesday said the Poverello Center will utilize the Salvation Army as an emergency shelter this winter and make changes to a suite of policies to accommodate a wider range of clients.

Among them, it will triage individuals based on need and waive a longstanding policy of zero tolerance for drug and alcohol use. The Poverello will also staff both shelters, ensuring its seasoned employees are available to meet client needs and move them toward stable, long-term options.

“Over the winter, the Poverello will continue to house its winter maximum of 175 people each night,” said Amy Allison Thompson, the shelter's executive director. “Anyone above that number will be staying at the Salvation Army. During the day, people will be welcome to stay warm at the Poverello Center and access our daytime services.”

Last winter, the shelter found itself overcrowded, sending the community scrambling to find accommodations for the overflow homeless population. The Salvation Army stepped up and opened its doors as a second nighttime shelter.

Much was learned from the process, and the Poverello has made a number of changes to both policy and approach. Because the Poverello will be operating both shelters, it will triage individuals to determine which location is best suited for their needs.

“Being able to decide strategically who stays where will allow us to make sure we use the space strategically and as efficiently as possible,” Thompson said. “This year, staffing will all be managed by the Poverello Center, and our staff are well trained and adept at serving this population.”

The center will also waive a longstanding rule on drug and alcohol use. In the past, it has adhered to a zero tolerance policy, though that will change this winter. It will instead deploy a policy based on behavior.

“From Nov. 1 to March 31, the policy will be focused on behavior rather than sobriety,” she said. “Individuals will be able to spend the night at either the Poverello Center or the winter shelter and access daytime services at the Poverello if they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, as long as they're able to abide by our policies.”

Seeing the need to prevent a repeat of last winter, the city and Missoula County, along with community advocates, began planning for this winter last March. A working group was formed and spent the spring reviewing demographic data on those who used the emergency winter shelter last year.

“We wanted to better understand both the service needs of those individuals and important physical aspects we should understand when planning for future years,” said Eran Pehan, director of the city's Office of Housing and Community Development.

“We learned that a significant number of shelter guests were over the age of 65 and experienced mobility issues that made it nearly impossible for them to get on and off the floor to sleep on a sleeping mat.”

The working group also sought solutions to the challenges around homelessness, including a search of “all available commercial property” open at that time. Most of the leads were dead ends, though it helped arrive at the plan presented Wednesday.

Theresa Williams, coordinator of Reaching Home, the city's plan to end homelessness, said the emergency winter shelter will help prevent an increase in unpaid hospital visits, and injuries and deaths caused by cold weather.

“This is meeting a short-term need until we create a navigation center in 2022,” she said. “We're still building out what that service package will look like. Navigation centers are come as you are, and we're going to meet people where they're at. We'll have support services on site, and create that pathway to housing and stability.”

The plan announced Wednesday drew broad support from city and county officials. Both governments pushed back on a weekend editorial in a local newspaper suggesting they weren't doing enough, calling it “false” and “erroneous.”

The two governments have contributed to the costs of operating the winter shelter, and certain elected officials have participated in the planning process, which they described as complicated and extensive.

“We have a moral obligation to help,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

With the plan in place, shelter officials are working to establish transportation from the Poverello to the Salvation Army, though volunteers are needed. They're also looking for specific items, from blankets to towels, to serve a larger population.

It's also looking to close a $40,000 fundraising gap.

“We have funds in place to start these services on Nov. 1 to make sure nobody is forced to sleep on the streets when cold weather hits. But to continue this service through the end of March, we will need to finish up the fundraising effort.”

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