Is Homelessness In Missoula Getting Better Or Worse?

by William Skink

After the second sewage-line failure at Western Montana’s largest emergency shelter and soup kitchen, the Poverello Center, and nearly a quarter million in renovation costs, the men’s dorm is set to reopen later this week.

What guests of the shelter and staff have had to deal with this summer–with mattresses on the floor and a host of other disruptions and aggravations–reminds me of how the old shelter use to function. I worked at both locations and can remember how incredibly unsafe the old location became as the need increased.

Back then it was widely understood that we were sleeping too many people at the old facility. There are codes to follow, and yet to close down the old Pov, especially during winter, would mean someone else would have to step up and deal with the population the Pov was serving.

So, what happened when we were beyond the number of people we could safely sleep? Well, we’d get helpful feedback from the authorities, like a person sitting in a chair is not considered someone sleeping, thus we could exceed the maximum occupancy number.

When the new Poverello Center was designed, if I remember correctly, it was designed to serve, at maximum, 120-140 people. We quickly exceeded those numbers because, unlike the messaging from the Mayor’s office, the Pov is dealing with on-the-ground reality, and that reality is the persistent worsening of homelessness.

The Poverello Center has gone above and beyond its capacity to address multiple, chronic, systemic societal ills in ways that people without direct experience working there will never understand. The Pov staff make due, and they deserve massive credit for continuing to serve people through out this crisis.

So why did the crisis happen in the first place?

It was the design of the building that ultimately created this catastrophe.

In the Missoula Current article I linked to the use of the facility has increased because the need has increased. While the pipes were to code, the 4 inch sewage pipes were ultimately not able to handle the number of people using the facility:

“Our building was built with a certain amount of growth in the homeless population in mind,” said Thompson. “But in recent years, that growth has exploded well beyond what anyone who was involved with developing this building expected. This was especially true after 2016, when cuts were made to case management services across Montana. Suddenly we had people who were stably housed with case management services coming through our door because they could not maintain housing.”

The cost of repairs came to $240,000, and included increasing the size of some sewer lines, replacing all 90-degree turns in the plumbing line with 45-degree turns, and adding a sewer line back-up detection system along with an emergency shut off. Insurance paid $60,000. The rest was raised via community donations.

While the director describes the growth of homelessness in Missoula as explosive over the last few years, that’s not the message coming from the Mayor’s office. For example, in January of last year this is what we were being told:

The city’s Reaching Home coordinator Theresa Williams and Eran Pehan, the director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, gave an update of the progress over the last five years and outlined plans for the future. They were joined by Jill Bonny, who manages veterans’ programs for the Poverello Center homeless shelter.

“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.”

I have been harping on this idea that the amount of homeless people has been going down because the numbers being referenced come from an annual point-in-time survey that DOES NOT provide an accurate portrayal of homelessness in Missoula.

To back up my assertion, I ran across some meeting notes where this point was made by none other than the director of the 10 year plan to end homelessness:

Concerning the Point in Time survey, Theresa explained they are also examining the question of how the homeless element can be measured. Current systems do not accurately capture this. Missoula receives 50% of statewide allocation for NOPA funds, of which The Point in Time count is a required condition. It takes place during the last week of January, and it is a literal headcount of the homeless population. The addition of real-time tech solutions greatly enhanced the logistical aspects of the count this past January. Despite program efforts which has led to a 10-20% reduction in homelessness in Missoula over the past several decades, Missoula still has the highest homeless population in the state, 27% by count, followed by Kalispell, Billings, and Great Falls. This is likely due in part to the availability of services in the Missoula area. Point in Time is a winter count, and the count is estimated to double in July, but despite any inaccuracies, the count satisfies HUD requirements.

So, by their own admission, the Point-in-Time survey is not an accurate measure of homelessness in Missoula.

After the last few winters and literal casualties from exposure, there is something that resembles a plan to get through the next few years until a more permanent solution is developed, although details are still not being provided. Here is the outline of the plan:

“We began meeting very early this year to ensure we were prepared for the upcoming winter season, “Pehan said. “We wanted to ensure we had a program in place, the funding and a facility to meet that need this year.”

Pecan said the necessary funding is now secured and the Poverello will serve as the lead provider. A host location has been identified for the season. No further details were available on the funding amount or the location.

I am eagerly awaiting those further details.

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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1 Response to Is Homelessness In Missoula Getting Better Or Worse?

  1. JC says:

    Partnership Health Clinic had this to say about homelessness in the area, in an article in the Current today about potentially losing federal funding:

    “More than 1,000 of their patients identify as homeless”

    Pretty drastic self-reporting. And it only includes those homeless who have sought health care at PHC. So the number is assuredly much higher.

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