by William Skink
An RD reader who trusts my perspective on the issue of homelessness in Missoula asked me in an email if I was going to opine on the formal encampment being set up to relocate the inhabitants of the sprawling encampments under and around the Reserve Street bridge.
I’m reluctant to rush into any armchair-criticism of these preliminary efforts, so instead I’d like to share how I USED to think realistically about these issues. I am emphasizing the past tense here because today’s NEW NORMAL may necessitate NEW IDEAS, as we shall see.
When I say “realistically” I may be actually conveying a degree of cynical pessimism about how resources are prioritized and allocated in Missoula. I’ll try to unpack that lurking prejudice a bit so readers can understand where I’m coming from.
When I was being “realistic” in my conversations with new clients at the shelter, that usually meant I was educating them on the immense difficulty of getting into housing in Missoula. If they were coming here without any community contacts, or with one of the many marks that makes renting nearly impossible (former incarceration, bad credit, no rental history, fixed income, etc), I would tell them to consider ALL their options, like OTHER PLACES where they might have a better chance at finding housing.
I was thinking about those many difficult conversations I had with clients when I read this KPAX article about life under the Reserve Street bridge. The article details a couple’s first experience of Montana’s propensity to get cold. From the link:
When the temperatures dropped to zero last month and the wind blew at gale force, Stacey Barnett and Bear Legault hunkered down in their tent below the Reserve Street bridge, waiting for the weather to pass.
That night, the wind ripped away the door to their tent, starting at the zipper. They stayed warm under layers of blankets, nestled up with their little dogs, each no larger than a cat. They had scored a free mattress off Facebook in the nick of time. It kept them off the frozen ground.
Still relatively new to Missoula, the late October storm was their first taste of what’s to come, and they both know they’re in for a long winter. But their status among Missoula’s chronically homeless isn’t foremost in their thoughts.
Rather, it’s the day-to-day struggles that cause the biggest problems.
“The challenge for me is probably because I have a walker,” said Barnett, pointing to a nearby tree where the walker sat covered in snow. “My first walker got stolen, so we got that one from the Poverello, but the seat’s broken so I can’t really use it. Right now, that’s kind of the main issue for me.”
Now, you can dismiss what I’m about to say as evidence of “compassion fatigue” from a burned out social worker, but I find this type of narrative to be profoundly frustrating, and for good reason, as I will explain.
When clients with this level of need arrived at the shelter (or called in at Aging Services) I would often explain to them that the state of Montana, with only a million people, simply doesn’t have the same level of resources as a state like Washington. I would say I know this because I have family with a special needs kid in Washington and the state Medicaid programs to help them (including resource limits) are much more substantial than what we have here.
That is what I call “reality”.
So, what would a shelter program that incorporated this reality look like?
Before the pandemic I would have said a responsible shelter program could offer a 90-day stay on condition clients who are on fixed income show bank statements indicating they are saving money toward housing, considering the shelter provides free food and housing. If, at the end of 90 days, it doesn’t look feasible that progress is being made, then finding a more suitable community could be the next goal.
BUT the pandemic has changed EVERYTHING, transforming Missoula into a sizzling hot ZOOM TOWN for wealth to flee to and work remotely from.
So why not leverage that?
If I was running this fiefdom and empowered by the state to levy taxes, I would require incoming wealth with no social/community ties to Missoula to pay the housing costs for an eligible homeless Montana resident for up to 6 months.
That might sound punitive, and would probably further inflate the cost of housing, but it might also get us to think about the rapid changes happening here as this pandemic wealth migration makes housing in Missoula even MORE out of reach for those at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum.
While this new outdoor homeless encampment is billed as being “temporary”, the pattern for the last few winters has been band-aid after band-aid as the weather predictably turns cold.
For a community that has done so much studying and planning and virtue-signaling for the past 8 years of our 10 YEAR PLAN TO END HOMELESSNESS, this latest band-aid is just one more placation plan with the dual purposes of “helping” the homeless while ALSO helping Missoula’s political establishment keep their cushy jobs.