Missoula County could use its authority under the local emergency operations plan to issue a zoning variance to accommodate an encampment housing the area's homeless population over the winter.

With the encampment possibly needed beyond the winter, the county will also begin the typical public hearing process to extend the zoning variance, though that could take around a month to complete.

Last week, a coalition of private and area nonprofits announced their plan to open the encampment off Highway 93 on the south side of Missoula. The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space will accommodate roughly 40 occupants over the course of the winter.

The site will be located on private property.

Chris Lounsbury, the county's chief administrative officer, said the emergency declarations issued in the spring, including Gov. Steve Bullocks' executive order, activated the county's emergency operations plan.

That resulted in the appointment of a task force to focus on Missoula's unsheltered and homeless population. The task force has been working since March to find solutions to the surge in shelter needs and the limitations around capacity.

“Under the current conditions that COVID requires, the Poverello had to reduce their capacity to meet those needs and guidelines. That created additional displacement for folks who were already unhoused,” Lounsbury said.

Community partners, including the City of Missoula, opened a second winter shelter on Johnson Street. Lounsbury said the second shelter also is full, housing around 90 people a night.

The city's noncongregate shelter at the Sleepy Inn also is operating at near capacity on what Lounsbury described as a consistent basis. As a result, some needs are still not being met, and the county is statutorily required to address them.

“It left us on the task force with a fairly significant unhoused population that was still in existence across Missoula, and some of those folks are currently in an unsanctioned camping location off Reserve Street,” Lounsbury said.

The county's emergency operations plan requires the county to address the direct effects of an incident and take immediate action to “save lives, protect property and meet basic human needs.”

Lounsbury said that's not occurring at the Reserve Street camp.

“We have not been able to adequately address those needs,” he said. “There is not a way to get running water to that facility, or get hand washing stations down there. We're not able to address the solid waste needs down there. It has left us with a unhoused population that still has a lot of those challenges.”

The sanctioned encampment planned for private property on the South Side of Missoula would meet basic human needs, including shelter, warmth and proper sanitation. But the property is currently zoned for residential use and not a homeless camp.

He asked county commissioners on Tuesday to use their authority to consider the zoning change.

“I believe under your emergency powers we have an obligation to meet those needs in the short term, and while that particular need is being met, it's important we also meet our other statutory obligations,” Lounsbury said.

A zoning variance will be required for the camp to exist beyond the winter months. The county will commence a public hearing process that's expected to take up to a month to complete.

In the end, the zoning variance would accommodate the homeless camp and, in the short term, the camp will be permitted to operate.

“We don't know exactly when the emergency declaration will terminate,” Lounsbury said. “Even when that happens there will be a period of time where it will take time to unwind all these things.”