MISSOULA - Saying the cost of tending to the city's most vulnerable residents has become too much to cover with unpredictable funding, advocates on Tuesday asked Missoula County to consider placing a crisis services levy on the November ballot.
If approved and passed by voters, the funding would replace revenue from the American Rescue Plan and CARE acts. Funding from such programs was used to start or invest in a number of programs but is not long-term.
To replace that revenue, advocates are now seeking a crisis services levy to provide a predictable $5 million annually to sustain a number of programs ranging from mobile support to emergency winter shelter.
Doing so, they said, would make Missoula a better, safer place.
“We have demonstrated through the utilization of these programs that we've had some success in dealing with these critical issues,” said levy advocate Shannon Flanagan. “We all benefit by keeping these issues in check with programs with proven outcomes. We've heard anecdotal stories from outside of Missoula in places like Seattle and Portland where they've taken what appears to be a more passive approach and have had terrible outcomes.”
The city and county over the past few years, in partnership with local organizations, have invested millions of dollars to tip up a number of programs directed at homelessness, housing, domestic violence and crisis intervention.
The steps have included a temporary safe outdoor space and a sanctioned homeless camp. The city and county also have invested in winter shelter, helped fund operations at the Poverello, and contributed to low-income housing and property acquisitions to help shelter vulnerable populations.
They also launched a crisis intervention team, among other efforts. Advocates said the programs are paying off and need funding over the long term to survive. They placed their goal of raising around $5 million a year through a crisis services levy.
“We've made tremendous progress over the past couple of years thanks to programs supported by our public sector,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of the United Way of Missoula County. “But supporting them without ARPA funds is too big of a lift. We need public support to continue these programs. We all benefit when we live in a community where people are housed, have access to critical mental health services, and where people feel safe and receive justice.”
According to information pulled from the state's Homeless Management Information System earlier this year, roughly 619 individuals and families were identified as being unhoused in Missoula. The figures included 96 veterans, 427 individuals and 72 families.
Those aged between 35 and 39 represented the largest number of unhoused individuals, followed by those 40 to 44. Around 73% were white, 16% were Native American and 4.5% were black. The majority of them were men.
But the data also revealed some bright spots in that 86 individuals and families were able to secure permanent housing between October and April. It still remains one of the greatest challenges facing Missoula and its efforts to address homelessness.
“Rental costs have skyrocketed beyond what families and domestic survivors can afford,” said Cindy Weese, executive director of the Missoula YWCA. “The wait list for subsidized housing assistance – which used to be a lifeline for low-income families and survivors – is now five years long.”
The YWCA, which has been a partner in many local efforts, also provides services to survivors of domestic violence and emergency housing for families.
Weese said the organization's own statistics suggest that 70% of homeless families in Missoula are headed by a single mother and domestic violence survivor. The organization has provided emergency transitional and permanent housing to more than 600 people, including 175 families and 300 unsheltered children, Weese said.
“Many are living in such deep poverty it makes it difficult for them to get that early and intensive care they need,” Weese said. “Without the means to effectively address these health issues, many unhoused individuals and domestic violence survivors will always struggle to find and maintain safe, permanent housing.”
Missoula County commissioners will open the public hearing on a potential ballot initiative this Thursday and hold it open for a month. In August, they could consider a resolution supporting the ballot measure.
If they do, voters would have the final say in November. In June, Missoula voters approved a levy increase to support Missoula Aging Services. The county may also consider placing a general obligation bond on the ballot to support the Missoula County fairgrounds.
“It's the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” Weese said of a crisis services levy. “Investment in shelter and crisis services not only helps our most vulnerable community members, it also saves taxpayer money. Housed and supported people rely much less on emergency services like law enforcement and hospital emergency rooms.”