Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) City and county officials joined homeless advocates on Wednesday in painting a dire picture of Missoula's lack of indoor shelter and the growing presence of outdoor encampments in public places.

A recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit placed limitations on the ability of cities to deal with such encampments. As a result, cities cannot criminalize homelessness, nor can they ticket, arrest or remove people from camping in public places unless there are shelter beds available for those individuals.

Boil it down and Missoula needs more shelter space if it hopes to prevent outdoor camps from swelling in the summer months - and dealing with the social and environmental impacts that such camps present.

“Since we don't have enough shelter beds, we can't remove someone from an encampment in a public space,” said Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess. “People need to understand that if we investigate and don't find threats, we cannot ask the campers to leave, nor will we.”

Calling Missoula's lack of shelter a serious issue, Hess and other officials on Wednesday called for an increase in funding from the state and federal level. They may also call on voters at some point to consider funding certain needs.

Without that funding, certain programs may end, they cautioned. Already, the inability of local government to meet such needs has resulted in a growing number of outdoor camps – and a growing number of complaints filed with the city.

“We simply don't have enough space to meet the need or the demand,” Hess said. “Our staff is working very hard with limited capacity to investigate complaints. We receive dozens of complaints each day and we lack the finances and staff to get to every situation. Years of cuts at the state and federal level to mental health services has put us and other communities in a very untenable situation.”

Striking numbers

When the Emergency Winter Shelter closed on April 10, more than 80 people slept in the facility on the last night. The next day, they had few other places to go and many have taken to outdoor camps.

The city's traditional homeless shelter at the Poverello is also full. Shelter director Jill Bonny said the facility on average slept more than 100 people nightly throughout the winter. It recorded 132 straight days where it housed more than 100 individuals, including one night where it accommodated 167 people.

That's far more than the shelter was built to house, she said.

“One of the most pressing challenges we face is the lack of available shelter beds, which has led to an increase in urban camping,” Bonny said. “The Poverello is at capacity and is turning people away nightly.”

Jill Bonny, director of the Poverello Center, said the shelter is at capacity and is turning people away nightly. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Jill Bonny, director of the Poverello Center, said the shelter is at capacity and is turning people away nightly. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Pov was built in 2014 with the intent of sheltering 120 people. Given today's need, it's using common areas to sleep its residents, including the dining room.

“We're currently working on a plan to sleep more in the building, and we're committed to doing that in a safe way,” Bonny said. “Homelessness isn't just a problem for individuals. It affects entire communities, public safety, public health and the overall well-being of our city.”

Using federal Covid funding, the city and county were able to open and staff the winter shelter each of the last two years. They were also able to open a new Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, which uses hard-sided shelters to provide transitional housing.

But like the Poverello, the outdoor space is full and roughly 116 people are on the waiting list to get in.

“We spent the federal money we had and we have no more tax resources to spend on this,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “The answer here is money. That's what it will take to get more places open, staffed and up and running.”

Funding and programs

Federal relief money also helped ramp up a number of homeless services in Missoula, which helped plug the gap for a period of time. But the funding has dried up and homeless advocates are reporting a series of issues that together have swelled the homeless population.

Inflation has driven up the cost of food and gasoline. Housing prices across Montana and the West have made shelter too costly for some. Addiction and the lack of mental health services in Montana also hurts.

“We're navigating all of that with the unwinding of Medicaid at the state level, which will kick thousands of people out of critical medical coverage in the next couple of months,” said Eran Pehan. “All of these things are conflating and leading to an increase in people losing their housing in our community.”

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said more funding is needed to address the homeless challenge. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said more funding is needed to address the homeless challenge. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Pehan, who heads the city's office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation, cited the city's efforts to get ahead of the problem in recent years. Along with funding for the winter shelter, it also helped fund the Homeless Outreach Team while advocating for other programs.

But the Covid funding is gone and Missoula voters shot down a crisis services levy last November, which would have provided around $5 million annually to fund a number of programs. Without a new source of funding, many programs launched during the pandemic are at risk of ending.

“Many of those programs are at risk after the levy failed,” Pehan said. “We need to identify new funding sources to ensure those services continue to exist in our community.”

But that may not be easy to do without some form of voter-approved revenue stream, according to Hess. The state caps property tax increases at one-half the rate of inflation, leaving the city and county unable to find the revenue needed to provide more shelter and run the programs officials believe the community values.

“There are things that won't get funded, and that's the reality we're living with,” Hess said. “Because of the limitations placed on us by the state Legislature to levy the taxes needed to fund the services that residents expect, we will not be able to fund everything. It will have an impact on our community that people will see.”