Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the Missoula City Council took several hours Wednesday to discuss a proposal to host authorized homeless camps at city parks, it didn't have time to discuss the economic needs of the neighborhood adjacent to the Johnson Street shelter.

Council members Mike Nugent, Sandra Vasecka and Kristen Jordan sponsored a proposal that would commit the city to master plan the Johnson Street shelter property within one year and complete the building's demolition within three years.

“We're just trying to give the neighborhood some assurance and predictability,” said Nugent. “It's perfectly reasonable for that neighborhood to want some assurances, and there's no reason why we can't give it to them.”

The City Council in 2017 voted to purchase 12 acres off Johnson Street from Montana Rail Link for $2 million. They city dedicated around 4 acres of that property to develop a neighborhood park and set the remaining 8 acres aside for redevelopment.

But that promise has gone unfulfilled, largely due to the needs of the city's homeless population. After the pandemic hit, the Poverello was forced to reduce capacity and the city raced to open an emergency winter shelter on a temporary basis.

Yet the shelter has now operated for several winters and, earlier this month, it was funded to become a year-round facility. The city has dedicated millions of dollars to the shelter, and area residents now fear it will become a permanent fixture in their neighborhood.

That goes against the city's promise to bring economic opportunity to the area, residents have said. Removing the shelter within three years has support on City Council, though no vote has taken place.

The city has already pledged to redevelop the site while looking for future options to serve the homeless. It has dedicated hours of discussion to the latter issue in recent months.

“I think this does give some predictability to the neighborhood,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “This is not the site for a permanent shelter. I think we agree on that and the administration agrees with that. This puts it on paper.”

Council member Daniel Carlino tried to push an amendment requiring the city to identify “at least” one new homeless site within a year as well. But other council members accused Carlino of grandstanding given his phrasing. City Council already has directed city staff to identify alternatives and didn't need to do it again, they noted.

Members of the public also took issue with Carlino's gamesmanship regarding efforts to redevelop the Johnson Street property at the perceived expense of the shelter. The neighborhood is circulating a petition supporting the shelter's redevelopment.

“This was part of an original plan before it was a homeless shelter. It was part of the Midtown economic plan,” resident Kevin Farmer said.

To Carlino he added, “You know that, and so does everyone else here. This is not an attack on sheltering or homelessness. It's sticking to an original plan that was agreed upon.”