Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) When the Johnson Street shelter opens this month and operates for the next year, it will fill what advocates have described as an urgent community need in providing for the homeless. But it will also use what remains of the city's American Rescue Plan Act funding, leaving nothing for next year.

Faced with the potential of not being able to fund the shelter next September, city leaders and homeless advocates have begun exploring any options that may be available to them. Those could include a request for state support, a capital campaign for the Poverello to expand its sheltering capacity, billing Medicaid in new ways, or seeking a new crisis levy.

While they're all just ideas at this point, most agree that the city won't be able to fund such work alone, and questions remain how receptive taxpayers will be if asked to lend support.

“We know the need for this isn't going to go away any time soon,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of development and planning. “We have long-term solutions on the horizon to build more homes. But the need today exists and it's not going to go away next year just because we don't have any funding.”

The city has applied ARPA funding to operate and staff the shelter for the past several years. This year, it allocated roughly $1.2 million to do so. It also covered other costs related to its homeless response.

But that funding won't be available next year. Pehan said the state still has APRA funding it hasn't used or allocated, and cities across the state could form a coalition pushing for state support.

“It's a national issue and a statewide issue that's been dumped on local government to solve,” Pehan said. “Large cities across Montana need to do this together and really start to push for that support. There's no way we can do this alone.”

Pehan said Missoula, along with several other cities, could also look for new ways to bill Medicaid. Doing so would also require state support, as would building the housing needed to address the issue at its core.

“The economic factors in the nation have dramatically changed,” Pehan said. “We need to be more creative and we need that partnership with the state.”

Mixed opinions

While most agree that affordable housing would help, some believe the city placed itself into a corner by propping up new programs with one-time federal funding with no way of funding those programs once the money was no longer available.

Ward 6 council member Sandra Vasecka, who represents the neighborhood impacted by the Johnson Street shelter, disagreed with city leaders when they directed ARPA money to sheltering. She also noted that Missoula residents voted against a crisis levy last November, which would have provided funding for the city's homeless response.

Despite voting against it, Vasecka said local taxpayers are still on the hook, and she remains critical of the shelter's placement in a residential neighborhood.

“If someone had a child right when the shelter opened, they'd now be four years old. That's four years of not being able to play in your front yard, play in the park, and having constant eyes on your child when they're only a step away from you,” said Vasecka. “It shouldn't be like that. But until we start criminalizing the criminal behavior, it's going to keep going like that.”

The Johnson Street shelter.
The Johnson Street shelter.

Before taking a job with the city, Pehan formerly served as the executive director of the Poverello, a job she began back in 2005 when the shelter was operating from a Victorian home in downtown Missoula.

She led the Poverello through a capital campaign, resulting in the new shelter on West Broadway. But that shelter alone is no longer adequate, demonstrating how things have changed during and after the pandemic.

Others have experienced the changes as well and remain uncertain what the city can or will do next.

“When you think about the hierarchy of needs for people, you can't get to those other levels when you don't have stability at the bottom,” said Jill Bonny, executive director of the Poverello. “Not worrying about where you're going to sleep tonight or what's going to be your next meal, we can do that for them while they take that next step.”

A team comprised of city and county officials, along with service providers, began meeting earlier this year and identified a second shelter as a top priority. The Johnson Street shelter will fill that need until next September, and Bonny is relieved that it's available.

But without funding for next year, she's also questioning what happens then. It's possible that Missoula could be back to a single shelter.

“I'm glad we've got a spot to do it in the next few months,” she said. “But the biggest challenge is where we go from here. There needs to be a long-term solution for more shelter beds in the community.”

Funding those requests could be challenging in the future, city officials have said. City Council president Gwen Jones said the 2024 budget was a challenge and revenue is growing tighter with each passing year.

Next year's budgeting process could be even more difficult and taxpayers are already tapped out, Jones said. Finding creative solutions could be key.

“We need to start talking about the budget next year. That's going to be an early discussion. This is a progressive town, but our property taxes are getting regressive,” said Jones. “This shelter is funded by ARPA dollars and they'll be spent down by then. We'll have to have some community-wide discussions as to what the community wants to do and what it will help fund.”