by Travis Mateer
Narrative control is a fascinating process to behold, especially when it comes to a controversial topic like homelessness. And who better to dislodge some of that control than a former insider who was actually quoted in the plan?
The Missoulian has put out what I assume is its best possible spin, titled The long road home: Missoula leaders reflect on plan to end homelessness. Let’s get into it!
The template for a piece like this tends to be a feel-good story to start off with, and this article attempts that with Austin French’s story, but if this is the best example the Missoulian could find, as one commenter put it, then it doesn’t feel like we’re off to a good start–if quality spin is the desired effect, that is.
The most obvious part of the messaging around this awkward anniversary is the consistent point being made that NO ONE DIED during the cold months these last two years. It’s something that every official and service provider involved in promoting the crisis levy has been doggedly repeating, like a mantra.
It’s important to note that the means of death being discussed by our local officials is death by the elements, not death by a psychopath. Because if we’re talking about death by psychopath, Lee Nelson was brutally beaten to death in November of 2020 by a psychopath who targeted him at the Poverello Center.
Another death I’d like to mention, the death of a man who’s name is offensively included in a tacky memorial of names scrawled on cardboard boxes and hung on a fence pictured in this article, is the death of Sean Stevenson.
It’s true, Sean’s death, like the “officer involved shooting” of the young man who allegedly strangled Sean unconscious inside the Poverello Center, were not the result of Montana’s harsh winters, but I doubt that fact is any consolation to their families.
In order to make the focus on this slice of non-deaths seem more significant than it really is, our officials are making it sound like there was an epidemic of people dropping dead due solely to weather before 2020. Yet after claiming those types of deaths were common, the example that follows was actually the result of a violent teenager drunk of vodka (emphasis mine):
When the city launched its Reaching Home initiative to end homelessness in 2012, people in positions like French’s used to face far grislier outcomes on Missoula’s streets.
Exposure deaths were common in the winter, and people in crisis had few official resources to turn to.
In 2007, an unhoused Missoulian named Forrest Salcido was beaten to death near the California Street footbridge, a tragedy that captured local attention and catalyzed coordinated efforts to address houselessness in and around the city of Missoula.
Some of the people quoted in this article I’m going to intentionally avoid mentioning, since their fragility has led to some pretty underhanded shit behind the scenes, so let’s fast-forward to our new Mayor expounding on the delusion of Missoula exceptionalism (emphasis mine):
“I think that as a community we should be really proud of the way we’ve responded,” Hess said a few weeks before the official 10-year mark. “We’ve responded in a very Missoula way. We’ve responded in a way that’s compassionate, that provides the care that people need, but that’s also evidence-based and reliant on best practices.”
That last bold part is a powerful incantation for service providers. When all else fails, phrases like BEST PRACTICES can be deployed to mesmerize critics, rendering them timid and unsure of themselves. Since I’ve used this tactic myself, I know how effective it can be.
About those critics, how does this article frame their criticism? Let’s take a look:
Despite the many developments attributed to Reaching Home, homelessness remains a persistent issue and the plan has its detractors.
2022 Point-in-Time survey data, which is gathered on a single day each year, indicated that 325 homeless people currently live in Missoula.
2012 Point-in-Time data was not available. But anecdotally, community members believe the homeless problem has grown worse throughout the past decade.
This part really confuses me. Why not show some of the OTHER years that Point-in-Time data is available? Because it IS available, right? I mean, I recall helping to directly administer the questionnaires that produces the data, so why just depict critics as merely relying on ANECDOTAL evidence?
Back in 2019 I wrote about the Point-in-Time survey and quoted our own officials skepticism about the numbers the survey produces. Here’s the quote:
Concerning the Point in Time survey, Theresa explained they are also examining the question of how the homeless element can be measured. Current systems do not accurately capture this. Missoula receives 50% of statewide allocation for NOPA funds, of which The Point in Time count is a required condition. It takes place during the last week of January, and it is a literal headcount of the homeless population. The addition of real-time tech solutions greatly enhanced the logistical aspects of the count this past January. Despite program efforts which has led to a 10-20% reduction in homelessness in Missoula over the past several decades, Missoula still has the highest homeless population in the state, 27% by count, followed by Kalispell, Billings, and Great Falls. This is likely due in part to the availability of services in the Missoula area. Point in Time is a winter count, and the count is estimated to double in July, but despite any inaccuracies, the count satisfies HUD requirements.
That last part is really all that matters; that HUD requirements are met so that Federal money keeps rolling in.
Some of the years that I recall, when Ellie Boldman was Executive Director of the Poverello Center (before her meteoric political rise), a lot of effort was put into this “literal headcount”, with incentives like pancake breakfasts and, in later years, gift cards. Then Project Homeless Connect was launched, providing a little more consistency in the headcount efforts.
The anecdotal stories aren’t even all that compelling, coming primarily from the glass business across from the Poverello Center.
Then, along comes COVID! And everything that was GOING to be amazing just turned to crap. Because COVID!
Those at the frontlines of houselessness efforts acknowledge the plan has encountered road bumps. The most severe, they all agreed, was the impact of COVID-19.
“I think we were on track to really have some good success before the pandemic,” said Jill Bonny, executive director of the Poverello Center.
While we can’t say whether or not Bonny’s speculation is accurate, we CAN say Covid brought MORE Federal money to try new things out, while also giving the Poverello a good excuse to reduce how many people they were temporarily housing, something they’ve stuck to ever since.
Another opportunity the crisis of Covid provided was the chance to use “ingenuity” to buy a motel with Tax Increment Financing. This was like moving from smoking meth to just straight up injecting it, something Mayor Hess thinks is a crowning achieving of city strategy (emphasis mine):
Hess is also proud of the city’s use of the Sleepy Inn, a property that the city purchased to employ as a non-congregate shelter for unhoused Missoulians during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That absolutely, without a doubt saved lives during the pandemic,” Hess stated.
Hess trumpeted the city’s creativity in purchasing the property using $1.1 million in Tax Increment Financing, as well as its ability to turn the property around for a future sale. The city hopes to sell the Sleepy Inn for eventual use as affordable housing and potential commercial space.
“It’s this great ingenuity at the local level,” said Hess.
Another irony of this Missoulian article for me is the image of a tearful homeless woman taken in 2017 during the first Reserve Street homeless camp cleanup I didn’t coordinate, since I left my position as Homeless Outreach Coordinator in 2016.
This image was a major contributor to agencies like the Clark Fork Coalition pulling out of the cleanups, helping to scuttle the efforts, which led to an environmental crisis. Here’s the image:
A major cleanup at the scale this disaster required didn’t happen until just this past spring, and THAT only happened thanks to the effort of Kevin Davis.
Since I’ve heard some OTHER people claim undue credit for Davis’ achievements, let the record show who the Burk/Brandonburg Conservation award actually went to (Davis pictured center):
So, what comes next? Another plan, of course. But the uncertainty over the $5 million dollar mill levy must be given its proper platform (emphasis mine):
The next steps to address houselessness in Missoula are uncertain.
Most stakeholders are waiting on an evaluation from JG Research firm at the beginning of 2023 to put together the next plan. But some preliminary ideas include focusing on housing and prevention as top priorities, as well as incorporating more lived experience into the efforts to end homelessness.
“We know the solution to homelessness is housing,” Bonny said.
Perhaps the most immediate determinant of future local efforts will be the fate of the crisis services levy up for a vote on the November ballot. The levy aims to raise $5 million to support programs that include the Mobile Support Team, the Emergency Winter Shelter and the TSOS.
“That’s just something the community will have to decide for itself,” Armstrong said.
Yep, I guess we will. Which reminds me, I haven’t filled out my ballot yet. I better do my part to give these addicts some tough love!
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