MIÍSOULA — The weather is just starting to turn cold for good, but already the new Johnson Street emergency homeless shelter in Missoula is seeing regular use, just a week after opening.
The shelter is a joint initiative of the City of Missoula and Missoula County, contracting with the Poverello Center to operate the 150-bed shelter in the 28,000 square foot warehouse.
Between 30 and 60 people have been coming to the shelter every night, and that's expected to climb as conditions get more frigid in the coming weeks.
The goal was to help restore Missoula's traditional capacity to care for the homeless at The Poverello Center, which has been cut from 175 people because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a team that's dedicated to this location and the team is dedicated to that location and that is how things will work at this time, as well as three to four staff on at all times that are professionally trained," Poverello Center executive director Amy Allison Thompson said.
The new operation, which will only be used until March, is as much about shelter as it is providing safety as coronavirus cases soar in Missoula.
“That is exactly what we're balancing right now, and it is so challenging, and I think people aren't understanding that, with this location, the whole reason we're here is because of COVID," Thompson said.
"This is a response to COVID. This is how we can build up our capacity while also keeping people socially distanced at this time," Thompson continued.
A system is also in place to track potential COVID-19 cases.
“Yes, and we have a very extensive process in place around contact tracing if somebody's a close contact, that kind of thing. We've worked very closely with the Health Department to work through that process, and I think I've gotten very good at that," Thompson said.
Staff members at the Poverello Center say the community has been very generous with donations of bedding, outdoor gear and jackets -- a sign of the support for this new effort.
“We hear that all the time and it's been interesting, people's reactions. We did a mailing to approximately 6,000 households and businesses in a four-mile radius, and we got a lot of support, a surprising amount of support," said City of Missoula Communications Director Ginny Merriam.
"And there are people who say ‘I have concerns about public safety.’ And we hear that and we have police here to visit with people. But most everybody says thank you for doing this, and that's nice," she added.
Work is underway to prepare Thanksgiving meals for the two shelters, with main meals at The Poverello Center and "grab and go" meals at the Johnson Street Emergency Winter Shelter. That's going to mean more volunteers to help as well as a call for food donations.