Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the City of Missoula will close the Authorized Camp Site next month and open the Emergency Winter Shelter in its place, challenges around staffing, the lack of a long-term funding stream and a dwindling pot of federal aid still weigh heavily over Operation Shelter.

The city and county jointly launched Operation Shelter last year, representing a planned and coordinated effort to provide a blend of shelter opportunities and homeless services around the city.

Funding from the program was largely supported by the American Rescue Plan Act, and after this year's $700,000 cost to open and operate the Emergency Winter Shelter, just $900,000 remains in the city's pool of ARPA revenue.

The city is hoping to hold that funding in reserve for next year to provide a shelter opportunities or address inflationary costs, according to CAO Dale Bickell.

“Because the community has been very reliant on the winter shelter and other Operation Shelter programs, we wanted to have some funding left over for that going into next year,” Bickell said. “We're already at our minimums this year for our cash reserve policy.”

In a hearing that ran more than five hours on Monday night, the City Council voted to fund the Emergency Winter Shelter for another season. The city and county will each pay $350,000 to do so and efforts to staff the facility are under way.

But Eran Pehan, director of the city's planning office and the former executive director of the Poverello Center, said staffing continues to challenge the shelter's opening, just as it challenged the Authorized Camp Site throughout the spring and summer.

Staffing, along with funding and infrastructure, played heavily in the city's decision to close the Authorized Camp Site.

“We have turned every stone over in terms of thinking of ways to continue to operate the ACS,” said Pehan. “Absent of a 24-hour a day security presence, we'd need to hire somewhere between six and eight full-time employees to run what is a 24-hour a day shelter operation.”

The Poverello Center is also facing challenges in staffing its shelters, and attempting to run both the Authorized Camp Site and Emergency Winter Shelter would have forced the city and Poverello to recruit from the same pool of workers.

Pehan said it remains a challenging employment market.

“We were unable to fill all our Authorized Camp Site coordinator positions. We were only able to hire two individuals. We needed three or four,” Pehan said. “After several rounds of recruitment, we just couldn't fill those positions. And those were at wages and city benefits that I believe are higher than what our partners are paying.”

When the Emergency Winter Shelter opened last year, the Poverello struggled to staff the facility. Calling it an investment in Missoula, the City Council agreed to provide another $125,000 in financial incentives to help the Poverello recruit and retain workers for the winter shelter.

The additional funding enabled the Poverello to offer $500 in monthly bonuses to all staff at the end of each month, as well as an end-of-season bonus of $1,500. some of those challenges could resurface this year, experts said on Monday, and it's another reason the city has opted to close the Authorized Camp Site.

“It's the same things we're struggling with today – the lack of a sustainable long-term budget source and the staffing to do it well,” Pehan said. “Hiring people is extremely challenging. It's not without a lot of hard conversations that we came to the recommendation that we simple didn't have the employees, the budget or the infrastructure to operate the Authorized Camp Site safely.”

Mayor Jordan Hess said the decision to close the Authorized Camp Site was made after several rounds of talks with city partners. While the city wasn't able to staff it and provide winter infrastructure, the providers weren't in a position to take it over.

“It was never designed for (winter) and was never built for that. The general sentiment was that there weren't any options that were tenable,” Hess said. “There was no way to extend the service. The partners and the city didn't have a magic silver bullet to solve the problems that we're experiencing.”

With the Authorized Camp Site closing next month, the city and its partners can focus squarely on staffing and operating the Emergency Winter Shelter for another season. They're also looking to spring when a number of other homeless services are expected to come online.

Among them, the new Temporary Safe Outdoor Space will open off Mullan Road, and Pehan said it's likely that some residents of the Authorized Camp Site are on the wait list to get in.

The Trinity housing project also will open at the same location. Next year, as many as 30 housing units will be dedicated to homeless individuals.

“We do know we have other opportunities coming online in the near future,” Pehan said. “Those aren't immediate answers, but they're real answers to the houseless experience.”

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