MISSOULA — You can still see flowers on the side of the road in Missoula. But before we know it, there will be snow and one thing that won't change with the seasons is Missoula s growing homeless population.
Missoula leaders are continuing to address homelessness and camping in the city, especially as more tents pop up around town.
The City, County, and Poverello Center are working on plans for two new, separate shelter locations; one for the winter, and one outdoor legal camping site.
Officials say hundreds of people are experiencing unsheltered homelessness this fall. More than normal.
"Our staff is turning people away every day, and frankly it's heartbreaking," said Poverello Center Director of Development and Advocacy Jesse Jaeger.
According to Jaeger, people have been displaced during the pandemic, meaning now, there are more people in the streets.
Jaeger says the Pov is still operating at limited capacity due to COVID-19, and that's one reason for the new tents popping up near the shelter.
From June 1 through Aug. 31 this year, the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) worked with 271 unique individuals who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, Jaeger said in an email.
During that same time in 2020, HOT worked with 144 unique individuals. Pre-COVID they were generally only working with around 100 unique individuals in an entire year.
And winter is getting closer, "we think about the winter all year," Jaeger said.
The Poverello Center is working with the city on a plan for this year's emergency winter shelter. Meanwhile, city officials say a new Emergency Winter Shelter location will be ready to operate in November, but details are still being finalized.
Jaeger said the homeless people the Pov works with, want somewhere to go, "what we're hearing from them is that if there are better options, they will go there."
But Jaeger says, at least for now, there's not really anywhere else for them to go, "we have a real issue with housing." So the Poverello Center, the city, and the county are all working on a plan for even more shelters.
"Making more shelters will keep people alive," Jaeger emphasized that the Pov's role is to first provide basic human needs, like food, and shelter.
A location for a sanctioned campsite has been identified, on city-owned property near the Reserve Street encampment.
It will be located off Clark Fork Lane near Concrete Way and is intended to replace the illegal campground under the Reserve Street Bridge.
"That's the biggest concern, that would be the location to which folks who are currently camped out illegally on Montana Department of Transportation land near the Reserve Street Bridge would likely be living in the future." - Missoula County Commissioner David Strohmaier
But first, it needs approval. The county recently agreed to send a plan and permit to the state health department for approval.
The City and County are also looking for a new location for the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, which is not as emergent," City of Missoula spokeswoman Ginny Merriam confirmed.
"We are certainly concerned that we move as swiftly as possible, but do so also thoughtfully. None of these are meant to be the be-all and end-all, or a permanent solution, but it's a way to get folks into a more sanitary and more controlled environment, and hopefully get them into permanent housing," said Strohmaier.
City officials say they will present a plan for this year's Emergency Winter Shelter, including its location, next month.
"I understand it's challenging, but the compassion is important," said Jaeger, as Missoulians await more information.
Jaeger said any one of us could be one health crisis, one argument, one missed paycheck away from ending up on the streets.
"The reality is we are going to have challenges around homelessness, until we fix these bigger global issues, like more housing, more access to mental health, and substance abuse and counseling. Those are the things that are going to fix the root causes, and those are the things that we need to work on moving forward." - Poverello Center director Jesse Jaeger