by William Skink
As winter leapfrogs ahead of fall this year in Missoula, the final plan on where homeless overflow will be directed has yet to be made public.
Plan A of getting churches to handle the overflow ran into this problem in September:
The City of Missoula’s attempt to keep the homeless population warm this winter may get snagged on the issue of separation of church and state, the city’s attorney warned in an email Monday.
City zoning laws regulate buildings used as emergency homeless shelters, and prevented one long-running winter warming shelter, the Union Gospel Mission, from operating last winter because it wasn’t up to code. When the Poverello Center capped the number of people it could safely house, local officials scrambled to find a temporary solution.
Eventually space was found at the Salvation Army building on Russell Street, and city officials allowed it to be used as a temporary emergency shelter, forgoing the formal review process. Now, the city wants to make it easier for places like churches and other religious organizations to become emergency winter shelters.
If the legal complexities of church and state prevent plan A from being implemented, what is plan B?
Remember, after last winter, the Salvation Army was supposedly a “hard no” on doing a repeat. For perspective, here are notes from a public meeting of the Mayor’s Downtown Advisory Committee held last April about what went down last winter:
The Salvation Army stepped up to provide services for those who could not stay at the Poverello Center. They opened the day after Christmas 2018 and closed at the end of March 2019. The Salvation Army served up to 70 people per night. They were not as strict as the Poverello Center and allowed pets and husbands and wives to stay together. Operationally it was very hard on the Salvation Army staff since they managed a more difficult clientele. There was property damage, people with mental health issues, needles in the bathrooms and items stored outside under bushes. The Good Food Store did have problems but they worked with the Salvation Army.
Plans are already in the works to discuss warming efforts for winter 2019. The Salvation Army decided not to participate this winter since they had issues managing the daytime hours. The transfer center was used as a temporary warming facility winter 2018. Eran explained that they are now looking locally for a place to house people 24 hours per day and that plan will be taken to the council and the commissioners in the future.
Ethan Smith said that the police were called to the Salvation Army every night and staff was overwhelmed. Ethan recommended that whomever housed people this next winter should have training.
Bryan asked if the Salvation Army gave a hard no or if they might be willing to house a few people. Eran thought that was a good question and it was possible that they would be open to that. They were doubling or tripling their staff this winter when they typically only had four people working.
Bryan saw the value of a central facility but wondered if several organizations could work together. Churches could be an option. Transportation was an issue though; each facility would have to find a way to transport people to their facilities.
Despite all the talk of hopes and plans and churches saving the day, from what I’m hearing, it’s all fallen through, and a mad scramble is on to repeat the shit-show of last winter. If the Salvation Army is once again the host site for homeless overflow, I’d be very curious to know how that came to be.