by William Skink
Next spring the largest affordable housing project in Montana history will break ground. While that’s a good thing, no one should be patting themselves on the back too vigorously. This project is not for the most chronic (and most expensive) homeless individuals who are still bouncing from hospital to jail to the street. No, it’s for people making between $28,000-$42,000 dollars:
Roughly 175 units will be reserved for those who earn 60 percent of the area median income, or $42,000 for a family of four. Another 24 units will go to those who earn 40 percent of Missoula’s median income, or $28,160 for a family of four.
While this socio-economic group needs help in Missoula—a town now ranking 33rd in income inequality (surpassing Boulder, Colorado)—the group most at risk of literally dying from lack of housing will face another cold Montana winter with the same gaps we, as a community, have been talking about fixing for a decade.
The Union Gospel Mission has been trying to help address the gaps in services for Missoula’s chronically homeless, often serially inebriated residents, but those efforts have hit barrier after barrier.
After the Poverello Center raised the alarm last February about how overcrowded it’s shelter had become-and that’s with a policy of requiring sobriety to enter the shelter—UGM and the Salvation Army stepped up:
“The Pov had already approached the Salvation Army about using overflow in their location,” said Evans. “There had been some prep work with the Salvation Army and so it was easy for us to come in and work with them. They were great in getting things repurposed for us.”
With the arrangements in place, the Union Gospel Mission moved its operations from its Toole Avenue warming house to the Salvation Army so it could house more people. The warming house can sleep a handful of residents per night in tight confines, while the Mission slept 30 at the Salvation Army.
The Pov capped its capacity at 190, and with this winter serving as a test, the Union Gospel Mission is already looking to next winter, ready to help if the numbers swell again.
“I could see us doing that again, but I haven’t asked for permission,” Evans said. “We’d think, logically, it could be done again. We want to help address the homeless issue all the way down to the epidemic of camping and sleeping in your own vehicle. We want to help the city save money with police being used to serve and protect and not have to spend time knocking on car windows.”
From what I have heard, this effort was shut down by Missoula’s Fire Chief. I haven’t seen this reported by local media yet, but at some point I suspect that will change. Will it be before the next homeless person dies on the street in Missoula?
The city of Missoula didn’t just shut down UGM’s efforts at the Salvation Army. Last May, the city also shut down the parking lot by the UGM day center:
Don Evans, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission shelter next to the parking lot, said many of the people weren’t necessarily sleeping in their cars, and that many used the mission.
The shelter would routinely warn people about the ordinances about sleeping on the street, and Evans said many would move their vehicles frequently to stay in compliance.
Now he’s wondering where the group that was moved out will end up next. Without options, most are likely to end up living in the vehicles some other place in town.
It’s an issue, especially for a city that frequently cites homelessness among its top priorities and is six years into a 10-year plan to whose stated goal is to “end homelessness.”
“Where are people going to go? It’s something I’ve told people in meetings throughout my time here,” Evans said.
Yes, where are people going to go? One of the many homeless camps that dot our gentrified landscape? There’s the Reserve Street camps, but also camps down the Kim Williams trail, along the river by the Buckhouse bridge, along Grant Creek behind the hotels, in the woods out at Bonner, along the Clark Fork by the California Street bridge and many other nooks and crannies.
It might be blazing hot now, but cold weather is not that far away and there doesn’t seem to be any significant planning for what to do with the segment of the homeless population that can’t access the Poverello Center. Instead of raising awareness and leading efforts to address this, the city appears more busy shutting things down.
How many more people need to die before our city leaders prioritize WITH ACTION the costly and cruel plight of chronically homeless individuals in Missoula? And by action I don’t mean creating a new city initiative or funding another study. I mean ensuring the full spectrum of housing is available to address the full spectrum of need.
If this isn’t possible then city leaders should be up front about it. They should explain to those suffering on the streets that we, as a community, have other priorities, like helping refugees and regulating gun sales and building play waves and creating art parks and giving financial hand-outs to those poor developers having such a hard time right now.
For a town that considers itself such a progressive, forward-thinking community, the fact people are still dying on our streets is beyond shameful.