Nobody Puts Billy In A Corner

by William Skink

I’m a problem for the leadership of this town.

My experiences (and my tendency to be vocal about them) creates complications for those who want to establish a narrative of uninterrupted progress toward addressing difficult things, like homelessness in Missoula.

This reality was driven home for me after reading Martin Kidston’s stenography, titled City, county poised to address challenges of Reserve Street homeless camps, but work remains.

Despite my recent interview with NBC Montana, Kidston made no effort to reach out to me for my perspective, which is derived from years of direct work at the camps as the Poverello’s Homeless Outreach Coordinator.

Instead, Kidston relied solely on government mouthpieces in his article, and those government mouthpieces ALL have a stake in perception management, in part for their own job security.

Take the former director of the Poverello Center, Eran Pehan. This capable individual leveraged what she knew from her time managing the Ellie Hill shit show to get an entire department of local government rearranged just for her. Now, as titular head of housing and BIPOC pandering, Pehan spins a story that completely omits my efforts to SUCCESSFULLY DECREASE the negative use of this area.

If you detect a tinge of animosity, well, please tell me how you would react watching work you’ve done (and taken considerable personal risk accomplishing) disappeared by a former boss who now sits in a position of influence to write that work out of the story, leaving a manipulative PR pitch in its place?

From the link:

“We had been working on a long-term solution to the Reserve Street encampment for quite some time,” said Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “That work had been happening well in advance of when COVID hit, and we were making some really good progress.”

Pehan is talking BIG PICTURE here. Projects like the one to build permanent supportive housing by the jail (a project managed by the daughter of MRA director Ellen Buchanan) has been years in the making and is sorely needed.

But that project is not what the MC article is about, it’s about the sprawling encampments around the Reserve Street bridge that oddly have been worsening in the last few years, correlating with my departure from the shelter.

This is not just my perception.

Before doing the NBC Montana interview, I stopped in at Riverside Pawn, near Walmart. I asked the owner if I could park my car in his lot, explaining why I was there. I ended up talking to him for half an hour.

The owner of Riverside Pawn said during the last two years he’s had to deal with more negative impacts from people he assumes are living in the area. Now, this is just one man’s perspective, but his property is literally in the shadow of the bridge and semi-permanent structures are within about 10 feet of his property line.

Getting back to the PR pitch, here’s more from Pehan:

Pehan, who formerly ran the Poverello Center, said the challenge isn’t new. During the last recession, the camp’s population grew much like it is today. Back then, however, the city was ill-equipped to address the challenge and a pandemic wasn’t coursing through the population.

A decade ago, the old Poverello was still in downtown Missoula, and the city didn’t have an Office of Housing, nor a plan to end homelessness. It didn’t have a coordinated entry system, and the current “Housing First” model of addressing homelessness was still a novelty.

“Prior to Housing First, there was this perception that people needed to address their issues first. They needed to work to get sober. They needed to work on some of the skill deficits they had, or address behavioral health issues up front,” said Pehan.

“Housing First does the exact opposite. It acknowledges housings as a basic human right. We all do better when we ensure people have access to safe and secure housing as a community.”

Within these boilerplate platitudes there is no hint that from 2013-2016 I successfully collaborated with Travis Ross at the Health Department and various volunteer coordinators from the Clark Fork Coalition to lead dozens of volunteers in the removal of TONS of trash.

These clean-ups were done after giving everyone living in the area ample notice to ensure any personal belongings that needed to be removed, could be removed. Weeks before the clean up, I would spread the word, going camp to camp to make sure the job was done respectfully.

After coordinating about a half dozen clean-ups, I left my job in February of 2016. This time period is now an inconvenient example of someone doing something that was effective. Is that why I’m being disappeared from the story?

I’m not sure what decisions were made to change how this area was managed. I’m on the outside now, no longer privy to the machinations of the illuminated braintrust.

Was it the negative Missoulian article in 2017 with tearful Tina? Was it the Supreme Court decision on the Boise case?

That latter factor is an interesting one, as it hinges on a community’s ability to provide alternative housing options. Currently, in Missoula, we have the National Guard running western Montana’s largest emergency shelter because of Covid, so that option is severely limited.

I’m sure Covid will feature prominently in two years when the 10 year plan to end homelessness expires. Who could have ever expected a global pandemic, they will say.

While our leaders prepare their perception management strategies, I’m going to keep sharing what I know about these issues because NOBODY puts Billy in the corner.

Stay tuned…

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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