MISSOULA - With the public's tolerance for urban camping growing thin, city officials on Monday said they're looking at all solutions, but shelter options for the city's homeless population are thin and without them, there isn't much they can do.
Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess and several members of City Council said they've received an unusual volume of phone calls and emails, and they're not deaf to the concerns. But given a recent court ruling, the city is unable to move homeless campers off the sidewalks and out of the parks unless they can also provide shelter.
“We have to be very careful threading the needle of enforcing criminal behavior and not criminalizing the act of being homeless,” said Hess. “Our community needs way more monetary resources to address this problem. It's a problem that's going to be highly visible this summer, it's a problem we're going to have to do our best to triage, and it's a problem where we'll need some public understanding that we have very limited tools and very limited funding.”
Many homeless advocates point to the pandemic as the cause for the swelling population of homeless individuals camping on the streets and in parks across the West. Combined with the rising cost of housing and the government's failure to fund the resources needed to address homelessness have placed the problem on the desk of local officials.
Money to address the issue isn't available and with the budget season approaching, decisions on funding will be challenging, city officials have said.
“With our federal dollars that came in, we were able to have interventions for the last few years, but those federal dollars are evaporating now,” said Council President Gwen Jones. “We're back to an incredibly challenging budget situation, to figure out how to stretch our dollars as best as possible to have the most impact. We're in a really challenging place.”
As federal funding began to dry up last summer, the City Council debated at length which programs to fund and which ones to end. It opted to close the authorized campsite due to a number of reasons, including safety concerns and staffing.
Instead, the city opened and staffed the emergency winter shelter last season and held back enough funding to do so again this winter. The crisis services levy placed before voters last November failed and the Poverello Center is full.
Still, council member Daniel Carlino blamed the city for today's challenges.
“We had a vote around this table to close the authorized campsite. We had a vote around this table to not pass budget amendments to fund shelters,” Carlino said. “The City Council is definitely partially responsible for the homeless issue around Missoula right now.”
Other council members said Carlino's perspective was short-sighted given the issues that were on the table last summer when budgeting decisions were made.
“At that time, we didn't have the resources to provide a safe environment for both the campers and our staff, so I take issue with (Carlino) saying we're responsible for the problem at hand,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “I do think this is an emergency and we need to continue to do whatever we can to find reasonable and humane solutions to this problem.”
Jones also questioned Carlino's memory of how the issue has played out.
“I disagree that we had all these opportunities. We had a lot of discussions last fall on the authorized campsite. Our non-profit partners wouldn't run it. We couldn't keep people hired to run it. That's not a safe situation.”
The City Council this week is expected to take up a number of issues related to homeless camping on streets and in parks. But in the end, Hess said long-term solutions will require funding.
“The answer in my opinion is sheltering,” Hess said. “We need to provide places for people to be. We need to provide mental health support. We need to provide services that have better outcomes rather than simply moving someone along.”