by William Skink
I find the topic of homelessness in Missoula beyond maddening because after all this time implementing a 10 year plan to end homelessness, we are still getting mixed messages about a pretty basic aspect of this issue: are the numbers of homeless individuals going up or down?
In this Missoulian op-ed I linked to in another post, they repeat the claim that the number of people experiencing homelessness is going down:
Point-in-time surveys show that the number of homeless individuals in Missoula has been decreasing since reaching a peak of 585 in 2014. Similarly, the total number of homeless people in Montana has been on the decline.
And then there’s this from a recent Missoula Current article about the temporary ordinance that City Council voted on:
“Missoula lacks adequate services to address the increased need of our homeless and at-risk populations and our shelter system during extreme weather events,” said Jenn Gress of Development Services.
The city’s extreme winter cold creates unsafe overcrowding at the Poverello Center, the city’s permanent homeless shelter. When the population there reaches 175, people are turned away.
How is it possible for the number of homeless people in Missoula to be going down while, at the same time, the need is increasing? Obviously one of these claims is inaccurate, and I don’t think it’s the one claiming that the need is increasing.
The optics of this incongruity are not good, which might be one reason our elected leaders are so defensive. After congratulating themselves for a temporary ordinance that enables churches to join the band-aid brigade, council members Gwen Jones and Jordan Hess defended all the hard work they’ve been doing:
The interim ordinance – work on which began last winter – drew praise this week from politicians and service providers alike.
“Good work by everybody,” said Jim Morton of the Human Resource Council.
Added City Councilwoman Gwen Jones: “I’m glad we are having these discussions now and appreciate all the work that went into this. There’s some misconception that because we are hearing it now, it just came across our desk. But it’s been months and months of work. It’s a hard problem to attack.”
“The misconception that this is coming at the last moment couldn’t be farther from true,” said Councilman Jordan Hess. “We’ve been working on a permanent solution since last year. I appreciate all the hard work. These legislation has the potential to save lives this winter.”
Well, I’m glad people like Jordan Hess have been working on this ordinance so hard for the past year, but I will remind him and anyone else reading this that we are moving into YEAR 8 of a 10 YEAR PLAN TO END HOMELESSNESS. People are frustrated not because the scramble of the last year has produced so little, but because the past 7 years of a 10 year plan has produced so little.
If Missoula’s 10 year plan to end homelessness was an actual priority for our elected leaders, then we should be much farther along in plugging the gaping holes in the social safety net. From my direct experience, having worked at the Poverello Center from 2008-2016, I can say the plan has not been a priority, especially for Mayor Engen. There are always more important priorities, like acquiring the Water Company and gentrifying the valley.
No one in city government should be congratulating themselves over this ordinance. Churches and volunteers should not be asked to provide more band-aid fixes. There needs to be an appropriate facility with actual services and well-trained staff to address the kind of individuals who remain unsheltered during the winter months in Montana.
It’s also worth asking what 16 million dollars could do to help with all this.
The plan for this year, which is being unveiled today via press-release, is going to look a lot like last year’s plan, from what I know of it. I’ll wait to see what is reported before commenting further.