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Missoula’s investments in homeless intended as placeholder until future options open

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Posted at 11:23 AM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 13:23:00-04

MISSOULA — With federal funding in hand, the city and county of Missoula are placing millions of dollars toward homelessness and shelter, saying they have a one-time opportunity to address what’s become an acute problem.

But behind the efforts to strike while the funding is available, they’re also hoping that today’s push to provide outdoor shelter and a legal campsite will serve as a bridge to the years ahead when more attractive alternatives come online.

“These are tools designed to get us quickly responding to the immediate need with the hope that some of these longer-term tools will come online and relieve some of that pressure, and help us determine what other pieces are missing,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury.

Those longer-term tools include a number of housing projects, such as Trinity and Villagio, the latter being a $54 million affordable housing project planned off Scott Street. The Trinity project will also include 200 units of affordable housing on two different sites. Thirty of those units are reserved as supportive housing for the homeless.

The Trinity project also includes an on-site navigation center that will provide a number of intensive services. Advocates have described the center as a best practice in serving those who are living unsheltered in outdoor encampments.

But those projects won’t open for another year or two, and problems exist today, the county said. Today’s federal funding is eyed as a bridge to the future.

“This is that bridge to get us toward Trinity and other projects,” Lounsbury said. “We have a fantastic partner with the Poverello, which has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic with having to reduce their capacity by 50% to stay inside CDC guidelines. That’s part of what’s driving this.”

With funding from the American Rescue Plan in hand, both the city and county are directing millions of dollars toward homelessness, and across a number of fronts. They’re both contributing to the operation of a winter shelter, and they’re placing even more into the Poverello Center to help it expand both its mission and its veterans' supportive housing program.

The county’s plans also include $1.5 million to support “other initiatives” around housing and homelessness. In many cases, commissioners said, the funding decisions were made in partnership with the city to achieve the greatest impact.

Of the $1.5 million earmarked for other initiatives, a portion will go toward establishing a new Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, similar to the one created last year on the south side of Missoula. The funding will also support a sanctioned encampment – intended to replace the illegal camp under the Reserve Street bridge.

“This acute need has to be addressed right now. We’ve reached a level of no tolerance for people camping in areas where they’re not supposed to be, and we have to deal with that,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Over the next year, we’ll see Villagio, we’ll see Trinity, we’ll see more tools to work with than we have right now. But we’re going to take action now because action is what’s needed.”

Some critics of the city and county’s use of the funding note that it’s one-time funding only, and by investing heavily into such programs now, it could set local government up for long-term costs that it may not be able to afford – or the taxpayers may not want to fund.

Over the past two years, both city and county leaders have accused the state and federal government of shirking the cost of addressing a number of social issues and leaving it up to local governments and their taxpayers to solve.

Along with homelessness, the city and county are both investing one-time federal funding into mental health as well. But at least on the homeless front, they’re banking on other options becoming available by the time the federal funding runs out.

“We’ve never done this before and we’re going to learn a lot as we go,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “Hopefully, we’ll figure out what things we should keep and what things we shouldn’t keep, and then we’ll know how much money we need or don’t need and begin looking for funding right then.”

Strohmaier agreed.

“We have some acute issues to address right now and we have funding that’s going to make a significant and hopefully transformative change in our community,” he said. “Do we have all the details in the out-years figured out? No, but this is going to make a huge difference right now and set us up for success to determine what those next steps will be.”

Residents in some parts of the city have also become louder in their demands that the city and county remove the homeless camp under the Reserve Street bridge. At the same time, homeless advocates have noted the timing of the camp’s increasing population and its correspondence to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the Poverello’s reduced capacity, which remains in place.

Without other alternatives on the table, city and county officials remain unable to clear the camp. But with other camping options expected to come online as a result of one-time federal funding, the county has pledged enforcement of illegal camping.

“By creating alternatives for folks, we can get them better services and simultaneously make sure they don’t camp where they’re not supposed to camp,” said Slotnick. “We can do enforcement. I’m hoping that when people see the results of enforcement, they’ll be willing to support efforts in the future.