MISSOULA — A series of challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout has resulted in a growing population in the Reserve Street homeless camp, and city and county officials admit there’s no quick fix.
But they also believe the city is better poised to tackle the challenges now than it has ever been, and efforts to resolve the issues stemming from the camp continue to move forward, despite external complications.
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“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.”
The issue came to head last month when the Missoula City-County Health Department issued notice to the Montana Department of Transportation regarding the accumulation of waste and garbage at the camp.
The health department gave the agency until November to resolve the problem, but solutions haven’t come easy.
The camp sits in the Clark Fork River floodplain, so fencing isn’t an option. During a pandemic, evicting the camp’s occupants isn’t an option either, especially with the Poverello Center at reduced hours and reduced capacity due to COVID-19.
Ginny Merriam, the city of Missoula’s communication’s director, called it “one big Sophie’s Choice.”
“You have two divisions of the City-County Health Department in apparent opposition in that the Water Quality District is trying to protect the Clark Fork River, and the camp is clearly having some impacts because people are living there without appropriate sanitation,” said Merriam.
“Then you have the infectious disease folks who know and share the CDC’s best practices during a pandemic, that you don’t disperse people who are living unsheltered. They’re basically in self-quarantine.”
Some Missoula residents have grown increasingly vocal in their calls for the city and county to address the issue by removing the camp’s occupants, regardless of where they may land.
Equally outraged, others have told officials to find the occupants housing, saying it’s below human dignity to live unsheltered in unsanitary conditions.
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 upfront,” 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.”
Over the past year, the Poverello has successfully found as many as 20 former occupants of the Reserve Street camp safe and secure housing. But the Housing First method requires funding, and that’s something that continues to be a challenge, Pehan said.
“The struggle we have in truly deploying that model is enough funds to do so,” she said. “Housing First requires resources. You have to have the funds available to get folks established into housing and support them in housing until they’re able to better support themselves.”
While resources are tight, the city and county have contributed nearly $10 million to the effort over the past year, including a donation of land to build permanently affordable housing that comes with wraparound services.
The city also invested around $800,000 in the YWCA project for homeless families. More recently, it spent $1.1 million to purchase the Sleepy Inn for future housing, along with property off Scott Street. But those investments will take time and additional resources to come to fruition.
“Those are just investments made directly into programs that support and provide housing for chronically homeless individuals and homeless families living on the street,” Pehan said. “The city has invested millions of dollars – upward of $7 million recently – on land specifically for the development of affordable housing.”
The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have only added to the challenge, and the rhetoric coming from both sides of the debate has grown louder.
Some want the city and county to spend more on resolving homelessness, even at the cost of other programs enjoyed by the wider public. But others don’t want additional tax dollars spent on building a safety net for the city’s vulnerable population.
Those working for solutions say the debate runs deeper than taxes and politics.
“This isn’t something new and it’s not necessarily the worst it’s ever been. It’s directly related to what’s happening nationally and to what’s happening with the economy,” Pehan said. “There’s not some simple solution, that if we just sit in a room and brainstorm, or if we just think outside of the box, then we’re going to land on it. It’s a complicated issue that deals with huge systemic shortfalls at the national level.”
Efforts to address homelessness in Missoula are beginning to align, and advocates see signs of progress. But today, those efforts can’t immediately offer options to the Reserve Street camp, nor can it solve the pressure the Montana Department of Transportation is under.
In a recent meeting with Missoula County commissioners, district administrator Bob Vosen said he was reluctant to put his staff in a position “to clean up needles and human waste” in the camp. Several fires also have been lit under the bridge, threatening vital public infrastructure.
Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero said a number of entities are working for immediate solutions.
“We really are on the same page and understand the pressure MDT is under,” Vero said. “We’re working together collaboratively on a cleanup (plan) and getting services down there, from toilets to trash removal, and we’ll try to hold it together until winter shelter is available. But this isn’t going to be a quick fix. It takes time and I think all parties involved recognize that.”
During the last recession in 2009, homeless advocates reported what Pehan described as “a tremendous spike” in people living in the Reserve Street camp. Then, like now, it was a direct result of the recession.
The difference now, Pehan said, is that more services are available to address the issue. And more will come online in the coming years.
“It’s not indicative of some really dangerous trend that’s happening, or our community’s ability to plan and be effective in this area,” Pehan said. “We have done such extensive work in the last two to three years to build Missoula’s coordinated entry system, and to create this infrastructure to move individuals rapidly from homelessness into permanent, stable affordable housing.
“We’re better poised than ever to deal with the current crisis and to deal with the current influx of people who are falling into homelessness as a result of COVID because we have the system in place and three years ago we didn’t.”