On Listening And Learning From Missoula Homeless Advocates

by Travis Mateer

Today’s post is going to flip the condescending directive coming from so-called homeless advocates for critics to “listen and learn” instead of taking action steps, like bagging up trash at Reserve Street before high-water takes it downstream.

Emily Armstrong, the current coordinator for the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, articulated this directive in a recent email, which ended with this:

At this juncture, my biggest request for community members looking to engage is to take time to listen and learn. As the one-sheet highlights, there’s a lot happening and it’s all part of a larger strategy around transforming how we address homelessness in Missoula. I’m finding in my work that there’s much progress to be made in our community’s understanding and awareness of all of the initiatives in progress, especially those that compose the basic foundation of our efforts—things like the At-Risk Housing Coalition (ARHC), Missoula Coordinated Entry System (MCES), By-Name List (BNL), FUSE (Frequent Users of Systems Engagement), the difference between our different spaces (The Pov, Johnson St,  TSOS, Reserve St, and others), and most importantly the humanity of homelessness. Our greatest need right now is well-informed community members who understand the complexity of the issue and can speak to the many efforts in progress. Please don’t hesitate to pass along the attached one-sheet with colleagues and community members. Some other useful sources for engagement are below. This is the best place to help right now—listening and learning and fostering awareness.

One of the resources provided by Armstrong is this August 2020 medium post about Missoula’s Coordinated Entry System. You can read that post first, then read what I wrote the previous year in a post titled What You’re Not Being Told About Missoula’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.

Now, let’s take a closer look at some excerpts from the medium post so readers of THIS blog can learn what the so-called homeless advocates STILL aren’t telling you, starting with this:

Coordinated Entry Systems use standardized assessment tools and prioritization policies to direct people to the resources which are most appropriate for them. They prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable members of the community, and reduce the burdens of navigating social services in times of crises. They also gather data that is crucial for determining how best to allocate resources and identifying any gaps that may exist in the services that are offered.

This general description of a Coordinated Entry System (CES) doesn’t include the fact that trained staff are required to apply these assessment tools to clients. This is a VERY important point to remember as we consider how this system actually functions in the real world.

Missoula’s Coordinated Entry System (MCES) aims to alleviate the burdens of navigating social services in order to help facilitate a rapid and permanent exit from homelessness. By partnering with organizations throughout the community, MCES is able to connect people with resources that exist before tailoring any further assistance they might need. These resources may include transportation, food assistance, legal advice, counseling and support groups, job referrals, etc.

While I support the idea of “alleviating the burdens of navigating social services”, my experience as a service provider at Missoula Aging Services helping homeless clients navigate THIS new system was VERY frustrating.

Some of the problems I encountered was a lack of trained staff at the “front doors” of homeless providers, like only ONE person at the Salvation Army trained to do the assessments. Another problem is the strict definition of homelessness that is used, which puts service providers like myself in the unenviable position of telling a client that couch surfing isn’t being homelessness enough.

I have actually suggested to a client that they sleep in their car on the night before the homeless assessment so that they meet the definition of homelessness outlined by HUD. How fucking crazy is that?

The following excerpt highlights several problems with the MCES, including the LITERAL homeless barrier:

Missoula’s Coordinated Entry System is available to anyone who is literally homeless, and/or anyone who is attempting to flee domestic violence. In order for the system to stay current, people who enter into it are asked to follow up with MCES each month. Sensitive conversations are the nature of this work, and MCES commits to treating every person with dignity and respect; personal information is always protected.

One of the problems I quickly saw when I was educating clients about MCES is the requirement that clients “follow up with MCES each month”. Adding this monthly requirement “in order for the system to stay current” directly undermines the claim at the beginning of the piece about ALLEVIATING the burdens of navigating social services. Kind of hard to justify this claim when the system itself is ADDING the burden of a monthly check-in.

Another claim this excerpt makes is that the MCES is available to ANYONE attempting to flee domestic violence. If this is true, then why is the YWCA no longer one of the main access points?

The three main access points for Missoula’s Coordinated Entry System are the Poverello Center, Salvation Army, and the 211 hotline. Each of these access points has the capacity to offer full navigational support for folks entering into the MCES. There are also several partner organizations within the community that are knowledgeable about and can help to direct people to MCES.

I was surprised to read about only THREE main access points. When I was referring clients to the MCES, there were FOUR. Why is the YWCA no longer a main access point?

As a former insider who was actually interviewed for the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, I have SO MANY questions for people like Emily Armstrong. Maybe that’s why they are politely telling critics to shut up.

Here are some of those questions:

What is the staffing capacity at the three front doors to provide timely assessments for new homeless clients?

What kind of navigation is actually provided to clients to assist them?

How many staff/volunteers are involved in the point-in-time homeless count?

What is being done to review Poverello policies after multiple incidents of violence have occurred INSIDE the shelter?

How many overdoses have there been at the Johnson Street shelter?

How are service providers working with violent and sexual offenders?

There are MANY more questions I have, but I don’t expect honest answers from the people who have been involved in these failing efforts for nearly a decade. What I have seen, and expect to CONTINUE to see, is increasingly desperate efforts to control the narrative in order to protect Missoula’s political establishment from accountability.

I have listened to the so-called homeless advocates long enough and am eager to continue helping others learn what I have learned about their manipulative tactics and damage control PR spin.

Just give me 20 minutes and a partially open mind and the education I can provide will be illuminating.

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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1 Response to On Listening And Learning From Missoula Homeless Advocates

  1. Djinn&tonic says:

    So glad your on this… Someone needs to hold their feet to the fire. I’m so sick of the dizzle dazzle look over there, bullshit. Why the fuck can’t they just get honest, everybody knows how much bullshit this is. Just admit you’ve failed. You’ve done nothing but kick the can down the road for a decade. Ten year plan. Here we are. Cowards.

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