MISSOULA — On a weekday afternoon at the Poverello Center, it’s business as usual. The shelter is full and the staff scrambles to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population, which continues to grow one year from the next.
Without systemic changes, some fear Missoula’s safety net may be on an unsustainable path, not unlike other cities in the U.S. facing high housing costs and other social challenges.
“It seems like we need more housing, and we need higher wages,” said shelter director Amy Allison Thompson. “If we don’t fix those two problems in our community, there’s really nothing the Poverello can do. We can’t fix that problem alone. We need the community’s help to address that situation and make that change.”
This winter, which has been relatively mild as winters go, the Poverello has operated at capacity each night, representing a population of 175 people. But that wasn’t unexpected, and last summer the city and other partners made plans to direct the shelter’s overflow population to the Salvation Army.
Now in its first year under the new coordinated approach, the Poverello has directed 30 residents a night on average to the Salvation Army, helping meet the overflow needs. Thompson said the coordinated effort is working well.
“Our staff know the folks staying with us pretty well,” she said. “The things we take into account is people’s trauma and their background as much as we’re aware. Sometimes people just do better in a quieter setting with a smaller number of people. With the Salvation Army, we can make those choices.”
The coordinated approach between the two shelters represents one of several changes local advocates have made in recent years to accommodate the city’s homeless population.
Along with a “housing first” model, which moves the most vulnerable up the list for housing, partners also have laid the groundwork to build several hundred units of permanently affordable housing, though that project won’t open for several years.
In the meantime, the Poverello last year shifted its policies around drugs an alcohol. While the shelter formerly operated around a zero tolerance policy, dangerous winter weather and the lack of options for unsheltered people with addictions prompted the Povello to move to a policy based on behavior.
Along with challenges around housing and wages, the policy shift has led more people to seek the shelter for help, Thompson said. Like many cities, there are few other options.
“We’ve seen a lot of folks come in who have been unsheltered for a long time. They’re actually coming in to access services, and I’d say that’s a big win,” Thompson said. “It’s part of the policy we’ve shifted to around a behavior-based policy instead of a no-tolerance policy around drugs and alcohol.”
While Thompson sees that as a positive step, it also has led to new challenges. Some residents with addiction face complex medical challenges as well, which has led to an increase in the number of calls to emergency services.
Last week, a resident died after an assault at the shelter.
“The Poverello focuses on safety as its number one priority for our guests and our staff, and for our volunteers,” said Thompson. “There are more opportunities for conflict with this many people in the building. All of that is really important, and it’s front of mind for us at the Povello to make sure folks are safe here.”
The incident was difficult on staff, who work long hours to serve the city’s homeless population and the challenges it brings, be it a man with holes in his only pair of boots to a woman with complex medical issues.
It’s often an under-appreciated task that draws misguided criticism from some members of the community, including those who post ignorant comments on social media but have little understanding of the complexities behind the issue.
While the Poverello enjoys broad community support, the criticism can be tiring.
“This whole community has a big heart, and it shows up a lot here at the Pov,” said Jesse Jaeger, the shelter’s development director. “You’ve also got staff here who have lived the experience with being homeless or have had challenges with addiction. They understand the other side of it and really want to give back and help make the community a better place.”
Thompson, a social worker who believes in social justice, said those who work closely with the homeless population shrug off the criticism and see their clients for what they are – people facing some of life’s biggest challenges.
Everyone, she believes, deserves to be sheltered and fed, regardless of what led them to the Poverello in the first place. For some, it could be a divorce or the loss of a job. For others, it may be domestic violence, a health care crisis or addiction.
“It’s easy for folks to blame the Povello for that somehow, but obviously we’re not causing homelessness,” Thompson said. “We’re a safety net to help support folks who are experiencing homelessness. Without some big systemic changes in our community, we’re going to be failing folks. At the end of the day, the solution to homelessness is housing.”
While the city’s housing policy bears the words “plan to end homelessness,” it’s a phrase coined by the U.S Department of Housing an Urban Development, and most don’t consider it in literal terms. Rather, it aims is to reduce homelessness one person at a time, and it’s something the city and other advocates have taken strategic steps to address in recent years.
The shelter’s Homeless Outreach Team has housed 20 individuals who were living outdoors this year, marking progress in the local program. The so-called Coordinated Entry System also has reduced the duplication of services, and it has placed Missoula’s most vulnerable clients up the list for housing.
Other efforts have been slower to evolve but are nonetheless moving forward, including the city’s newly christened housing policy, which will see pieces adopted this year. Missoula County and the city are also taking steps to increase opportunities for developers to construct affordable housing.
If approved, a proposed condominium project in downtown Missoula would be required to dedicate a portion of its units to holders of housing vouchers, or as deed restricted housing. More than 200 units of affordable housing also are slated for two parcels of land and are expected to begin construction over the next year.
The later project, dubbed Trinity, marks a step forward, but more will be needed. At a 2.5 percent population growth, Missoula will need 850 new units of housing each year. While that includes housing at all price points, affordable housing must be part of the mix.
“Without Trinity and other projects like Trinity, we’re in trouble in our community,” said Thompson. “Our community continues to grow, and that will continue to put strain on our very low stock of housing. We’re in a crisis here.”
Income and availability aren’t the only barriers facing those at the bottom of the economic scale when seeking housing. Roughly 40% of the Poverello’s clients have an income, according to staff, but they still can’t gain access to housing.
Barriers include steep application fees, a bad credit score, hefty deposits and even past felonies. One Poverello client, who is now 70, has a felony three decades old. Because of it, area landlords are reluctant to accept her housing application.
“There’s a virtual zero percent vacancy rate for affordable housing stock in this community,” said Jaeger. “If you’ve got any sort of barrier – a bad credit score, a past felony or anything that makes it a challenge to compete against someone who may not have those things – it’s virtually impossible.”
Thompson said others have put up as much as $500 in application fees trying to get into a place to call home, but without success. That money is gone, and they’re still homeless.
But Thompson said advocates are looking at new options, including the use of “diversion funds” and to implement what she described as a double deposit.
“There are some measures we’re looking at as a community that will help,” she said. “We can organize our efforts as much as we want, but if we don’t have the housing stock, it’s challenging.”