MISSOULA - A push to keep a sanctioned outdoor camp for a group of homeless individuals open throughout the winter came down to a debate over fiscal responsibility versus temporary solutions on Wednesday, and after a hearing that lasted more than two hours, the issue remained unresolved.
Challenges of safety, staffing, partnerships, cost, heat and water all coalesced around a question that has lingered since the city announced its plans to close the Authorized Outdoor Camp earlier this month.
To keep that from happening, council member Daniel Carlino has pushed to use what remains of the city's American Rescue Plan Act funding to maintain camp operations until spring — or in perpetuity.
He suggested the camp's residents will have nowhere else to go if the facility were to close.
“This crisis of displacing some of our most vulnerable Missoulians is happening right now,” said Carlino. “It's unacceptable to have no plan for some of these people staying at the Authorized Camp Site. They'll have nowhere to go – nowhere viable to go.”
The city currently funds or subsidizes a number of other shelters including the Poverello Center, the Emergency Winter Shelter and the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space (TSOS). The latter two are set to open next month.
While some of the Authorized Outdoor Camp's current residents plan to transition to the Emergency Winter Shelter and the TSOS, according to the city's nonprofit partners, a handful of others have no plans to do so, and it's for them that Carlino is seeking to keep the outdoor camp open.
But his suggestion that the city has no plan or was taking no action rankled some city officials, including Mayor Jordan Hess. Hess advocated to open the camp last year and has been a long and ardent supporter of the city's homeless initiatives.
“We do have a plan. To say we don't have a plan is inaccurate,” Hess said. “But we face really significant challenges in operating the camp through winter. We have not been able to figure out how to crack three issues that are really critical for winter operations – heat, sanitation and water.”
Eran Pehan, who served as executive director of the Poverello Center for a decade and now heads the city's Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation, said the outdoor camp represents just one initiative launched by the city and county last year.
The camp was tipped up during a pandemic emergency and faced challenges from the start, including staffing and basic infrastructure. Local service providers didn't have the capacity to take on the winter camp, and they still don't, Pehan said.
Rather than invest more money into the camp, Pehan said the city and its partners chose instead to focus on the Emergency Winter Shelter, which has the capacity to accommodate those at the outdoor camp who wish to transition to the facility.
“We didn't come to the conclusion to close the Authorized Camp Site, at least temporarily, without significant thought and discussion,” Pehan said. “We feel that investing up to a quarter-of-a-million-dollars into that infrastructure isn't the right investment of taxpayer dollars.”
With the pandemic cutting into the capacity of the Poverello last year, the city and county directed funding from the American Rescue Plan to open both the Authorized Camp Site and Emergency Winter shelter.
It also used ARPA funding to help staff the Emergency Winter Shelter after the Poverello struggled to find employees. That included both monthly bonuses and a lump sum bonus for those staff members who completed the season.
But now, the city has less than $1 million remaining in its ARPA account, and Carlino is seeking to use it to operate the Authorized Camp Site throughout the winter. City officials and some members of the City Council don't believe that's a prudent move.
“If we spent those funds now and the (Crisis Services Levy) doesn't pass, we'll have no funds for the (Emergency Winter Shelter) next year,” said Hess. “Coming up with that kind of new revenue in one year is very challenging. We felt like the winter shelter was so important that we needed to have a reserve to fund that next year.”
But Carlino and council member Kristen Jordan said the city could find that money next year if it wanted to. They've named the police department a number of times, along with fire and parks.
“We have money somewhere,” Jordan said. “We have money that can help these people from being displaced. If we don't keep these people housed, we're going to see it in our tax dollars. This is a short-sighted decision we're making that's affecting our most vulnerable population.”
Backers of the Crisis Services Levy, which voters will consider next month at the ballot box, also have suggested that the programs the levy would fund could eventually safe taxpayers' money, be it reduced jail costs or emergency room visits.
But the levy remains uncertain and, because of it, many council members support keeping ARPA funding in reserve for next year, when winter shelter for the homeless will again become necessary.
“It's disingenuous for Mr. Carlino to suggest that we're not working on solutions,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “I don't feel like it's responsible to spend the very end of those ARPA dollars knowing we live in this climate and may need funding for this next winter.”
A vote to free up that ARPA funding to extend the Authorized Camp Site's operation through winter never surfaced on Wednesday after a majority of council members opted instead to keep the issue in committee.
That motion was made by council member Mirtha Becerra and supported by a council majority. But it only allows more time for debate and doesn't necessarily mean that council will support Carlino's budget amendment.
“It feels like staff is making progress about finding a safe place for people to go,” said council member Mike Nugent. “We don't want to displace people in the winter. But it feels like staff will continue making that progress.”