While the city waits for a new crop of affordable housing units to come online, it's turning its attention to the winter season to ensure the homeless have shelter opportunities, and that those shelters are secure.

The City Council on Wednesday took the first step in approving a contract with Rogers International to provide security at four shelter locations across Missoula. The one-year agreement carries a cost of around $670,000 and is funded by the city and county using funding from the American Rescue Plan.

“It's not designed to stand in the way of services by any means, or discourage clients from accessing spaces of warmth and nourishment,” said Emily Armstrong, the city's Reaching Home coordinator. “It's intended to make those spaces safer, make the neighborhood safer, and create a more positive experience all around.”

The agreement includes four locations including areas outside the Poverello off West Broadway and the emergency winter shelter set to open for another year on Johnson Street. It also includes the temporary safe outdoor space in south Missoula, and the sanctioned camping site planned off North Reserve Street.

Presence will be provided around the clock with the exception of the temporary safe outdoor space, which will include nights and weekends, according to Armstrong.

“There's a lot of law enforcement interaction in these settings just in regards to the type of services that are served,” said Armstrong. “A security presence we're hoping will decrease the need for law enforcement to respond to those situations.”

Some council members have opposed the emergency winter shelter off Johnson Street, saying the actions of a few have caused issues for all. One of the area's representatives on City Council said the neighborhood struggled with an increase in drug use, human waste and crime stemming from the shelter's operation last winter.

But advocates suggest that a security presence could help mitigate those issues. Security personnel will stay in contact with the city and the police department, and have a direct line to the crisis intervention team and the homeless outreach team.

“This is being mindful of providing some support for the neighbors around these sites. Their concerns are valid,” said council member Julie Merritt. “Unfortunately, there's some bad behavior associated with some of the people at these sites. It's a small number of people causing most of the problems. I hope the security is successful in curbing some of the bad behavior.”

Jill Bonny, executive director of the Poverello Center, said in a letter to the community this week that some media stories on the issue have been misleading and “don't show a complete picture.”

She said the shelter has mixed feelings about security and doesn't want to make it harder for people to access shelter services, especially during the winter months. 

“This is not a company that the Poverello Center has hired, and we do not get to control the contract,” Bonny wrote. “We are doing our best to coordinate with the City of Missoula and Roger’s International to make sure anyone seeking to access our services receives the dignity and respect they deserve.”