Homelessness in Missoula: Better or Worse?

by William Skink

Homeless in Missoula has been getting some attention recently, as it usually does when the temperatures are cold. Earlier this year the report was supposedly good. From a Missoulian article:

“We have seen homeless numbers go down by 350 people since 2011,” Pehan said. “We are seeing a decline, which tells us some of those efforts are working.”

Still, homelessness remains a vexing issue in Missoula, and counting everyone who lacks permanent, affordable and sustainable housing is an inexact science.

That number of “350 people down” got thrown around in a few articles at the beginning of the year, but I have no idea where that number is coming from. Is it from the point-in-time survey done every January? If so, this year’s numbers won’t be known until the summer.

I am skeptical of the number because late last year it was reported that America’s homeless population was on the rise for the first time in years. From the link:

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual Point in Time count Wednesday, a report that showed nearly 554,000 homeless people across the country during local tallies conducted in January. That figure is up nearly 1 percent from 2016.

Of that total, 193,000 people had no access to nightly shelter and instead were staying in vehicles, tents, the streets and other places considered uninhabitable. The unsheltered figure is up by more than 9 percent compared to two years ago.

Increases are higher in several West Coast cities, where the explosion in homelessness has prompted at least 10 city and county governments to declare states of emergency since 2015.

So is Missoula bucking the national trend? Or are we being treated to some political PR spin? Or something in between?

Last summer I could see—every time I drove across the Reserve Street bridge—that homeless camps were proliferating in greater numbers than they had in years. I confirmed this when I talked to the guy at the Health Department who I once collaborated with to clean up the Reserve camps and others across Missoula. He couldn’t say why, but agreed it was worse than ever.

And now last week the Poverello Center is ringing the alarm that they are sleeping over 200 people and will soon be forced to cap the number of homeless people they are serving overnight:

Amid the cold snap that started late last week, the Pov had 205 people stay overnight Monday, a record high. More than 90 didn’t have a bed and 30 of those people slept on the floor without a mat, according to a Thursday news release.

The building’s capacity is around 160 people. According to a Community Medical Center release, the Pov is planning on limiting its capacity to 190 people.

“This prospect is devastating,” Pov Director Amy Allison Thompson said in the release. “We know the recent cold snap creates fatal conditions for anyone sleeping outside or in a vehicle. We didn’t want to do it, but we will need to.”

Overnight lows should go up as the week goes on, according to the National Weather Service, but still will hover around 20 degrees — the mark the Poverello uses to open their doors to almost anyone and everyone who needs a place to stay.

Last year, the Poverello’s open-door weather policy was in place for almost all of the winter, but it didn’t run into the over-capacity problem.

The last part of this quote hints at the question, what has changed from last winter to this one? Is it just that the need has increased? I think the need has legitimately increased, just as rent is increasing and vacancy rates remain far below the national average of 10%. But that’s not the whole story.

Last year, as the Coordinated Entry System was just being implemented, the Poverello Center announced a policy change in a public meeting. No longer would residents have limits put on the duration of their stay. It was explained that this was a “best-practices” approach. Time limits tend to breed procrastination. But from my experience working at the shelter for 7 years, without time limits, some clients would stay indefinitely.

I don’t want this policy change to be construed as a reason to not support the shelter. Critics who have never had to tell someone they can’t stay inside for a night don’t understand what it’s like. I have been in that position, and it sucks. The Pov has continually gone above and beyond to meet the needs of the needy as our city leaders spend tens of thousands of dollars to study systemic problems, then too often ignore the recommendations.

That said, the direct care staff cannot safely serve that many people in that building. Put more bluntly, the shelter can’t help everyone, which I know is easier to say when a human being in need of shelter isn’t staring at you expecting help.

Maybe calling people in our community without stable housing “homeless” is the wrong approach. Let’s call them economic refugees instead. Maybe then our city leaders will get more serious about addressing this problem with real action instead of studies and plans and lip-service.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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