MISSOULA - While the city of Missoula faces headwinds in the housing market, those on the lower end of the income spectrum bring their own challenges to the equation, though the city’s housing experts see signs of hope on the horizon.
In this week’s “Wednesday’s with the Mayor,” supportive housing and shelter for the homeless emerged as a focus of conversation – and among the top issue facing local governments. And while changes are afoot, moving the dial will take time and work on a number of fronts.
“In Missoula, we really strive to serve the most vulnerable in our system,” said Emily Armstrong, the city’s houseless initiatives specialist. “No other basic need can be met if someone doesn’t have stable housing.”
According to the latest information pulled from the state’s Homeless Management Information System, roughly 619 individuals and families were identified as being unhoused in Missoula. The figures included 96 veterans, 427 individuals and 72 families.
Those aged between 35 and 39 represented the largest number of unhoused individuals, followed by those 40 to 44. Around 73% were white, 16% were Native American and 4.5% were black. The majority of them were men.
But the data also revealed some bright spots in that 86 individuals and families were able to secure permanent housing between October and April. It still remains one of the greatest challenges facing the city and its efforts to address homelessness.
“Many have housing vouchers and subsidies that will cover at least 70% of the rent based on someone’s income, or the whole amount if they don’t have income, and yet no one will accept them,” said Sam Hilliard, the city’s Reaching Home coordinator. “There just aren’t opportunities for them.”
Armstrong agreed, saying some property managers and landlords remain reluctant to rent to the city’s vulnerable or homeless population. But by this time next year, two sizable affordable housing projects are expected to open, and that could present new opportunities.
Back in 2019, the city and county of Missoula, along with a team of housing partners, announced plans to build an affordable housing project known as Trinity on two parcels. The project’s complexity took years to pull together, as did a similar project on Scott Street dubbed the Vallagio.
But with funding secured, construction on all three projects began last year and they’re expected to open next year, bringing as many as 404 affordable housing units to the market. Of those, 30 units within the Trinity project will be reserved as permanently supportive housing.
“It’s a resource created by our housing first model,” Armstrong said of supportive housing. “It’s really intended to be a house for those who are the most vulnerable and need a place to live. We’re trying to build more of those units and really support that population by addressing whatever issues they may be having.”
For some members of the homeless population, finding housing is just one of the challenges they face. The Trinity project will also include a navigation center – a concept baked into the project shortly after it was conceived several years ago.
Located on the corner of Mullan Road and West Broadway, the navigation center will be attached to the 30 units of supportive housing. The center will provide a range of services, from health care to behavioral health, to help residents transition to a more stable life and healthier life choices.
“Those support services are intended to wrap around that person as they’re going through that experience,” said Armstrong. “It helps them settle into that new space and connect them to resources as they get comfortable and adjust to the challenges that have been impacting them.”
Hilliard described the homeless puzzle as a complex picture with some startling components. While Native Americans make up roughly 2% of Missoula’s population, they comprise nearly 16% of the homeless population.
If homelessness occurred equally across all races, then Missoula’s white population should represent roughly 90% of the homeless demographic – not the current 73%. With such figures at hand, Armstrong said solutions must run across a variety of fields and specialties.
“You don’t address houselessness in a vacuum,” she said. “You address it while you’re addressing so many other different root issues. It’s a symptom of a lot of other systems not supporting the population.”