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Long road home: Missoula leaders contemplate plan to end homelessness

In the decade since the city of Missoula developed its 10-year plan to end homelessness, local initiatives have helped hundreds of homeless Missoulans like Austin French.
The French found themselves homeless in July. He lives with friends and cycles from South Missoula to the airport every day as a delivery driver. But his position is precarious. French plans to pitch tents along the river until he hears from friends about Temporary Safe Outdoor Spaces, a Missoula County collective initiative to provide camping space and support 40 homeless residents.
French moved to TSOS in early August and began meeting weekly with a social worker to develop budgeting skills, goal setting strategies and other useful skills.
Austin French moved into a temporary secure open space in August after being unoccupied in July. On Friday, the day before the city’s 10th anniversary of homelessness, French developed budgeting skills, goal-setting strategies and other helpful tips through weekly meetings with a social worker before moving into his new apartment.
On Friday, the day before the end of the city’s 10-year homelessness program, French moved into his new apartment in a car a friend gave him. He said the services and stability provided by TSOS played an integral role in finding transportation and housing.
“These guys are amazing,” French said of his TSOS supporters. “They work wonders. They have had a huge impact on my life.”
When the city launched the Reach Homes initiative in 2012 to end homelessness, people like the French faced even worse consequences on the streets of Missoula.
Mortality from winter exposure is common, and people in crisis have few official resources to turn to.
In 2007, a Missoula homeless man named Forrest Salcido was beaten to death near a California Street footbridge, a tragedy that drew local attention and led to a solution to the problem of homelessness in and around Missoula.
Missoula Police Evidence Technician Barb Fortunate photographs the California Street footbridge where Forrest Salcido’s body was found in December 2007.
In late December 2007, a vigil was held on the California Street footbridge in honor of Forrest Salcido.
According to Mayor Jordan Hess, in 2012 the city joined the national 10-year plan to end homelessness with the goal of making homelessness “rare, short-lived and non-recurring.”
“We want to basically accommodate more people than live,” Hess explained.
According to United Way CEO Susan Hay Patrick, the 10-year Go Home plan is a “dramatic reflection” of how local service providers are tackling homelessness. Hay Patrick led the Reach Homes initiative with then City Councilman Jason Wiener.
Ten years later, Highpatrick is still committed to ending homelessness. While a true end to homelessness in Missoula remains elusive, Haypatrick and other local leaders are excited about what the 10-year plan has accomplished.
“I think as a community we should be very proud of how we responded,” Hess said just weeks before the official 10-year milestone. “We responded in the spirit of Missoula. We responded with compassion, providing the necessary assistance to people, but it was also evidence-based and dependent on best practices.”
Despite Reach Home’s many changes, homelessness remains an ongoing problem, and the program has its critics.
The 2022 time point survey data was collected from one day of the year and showed that there are currently 325 homeless people in Missoula.
Data for 2012 is not available at the time. But interestingly, members of the community believe that the problem of homelessness has worsened over the past decade.
The names of some of the 25 people who died of homelessness in 2020 are written on plaques on a fence in downtown Poverello during the Homeless Memorial in December 2020.
“Everything is going downhill,” said Justin Robertson, who works at the Montana Glass Company near the Poverello Center on Broadway, where Missoula’s homeless community is most visible.
He said he had seen the same people behave in obnoxious ways outside the glass factory over the past five years.
Robertson director Brian Dirnberger said the current issues would “absolutely” affect his business.
At the city level, Ward 5 Missoula City Councilman John Contos shared the concerns of Robertson and Dirnberger. Kontos said he would like to see better leadership and collaboration between the agencies involved in the 10-year plan and is skeptical about Reaching Home’s overall goals.
“Are we going to end homelessness?” Kantos asked. “Absolutely not. The best we can do is give him a big discount.”
City Licensed Campground, another legal campsite that opened in January, may close on November 16 due to lack of running water, staff and funds.
Those at the forefront of homeless work acknowledge that the program has run into obstacles. They all agree that the worst is the impact of COVID-19.
“I think we were on our way to real success before the pandemic,” said Jill Bonney, executive director of the Poverello Center.
The fight against the deadly virus has had a wide impact on efforts to end homelessness by limiting housing capacity, rising inflation and housing costs, and exacerbating pre-existing problems.
“The difficult problem over the past few years has been the biggest challenge,” said Emily Armstrong, head of the homeless program in Missoula.
Another major shortcoming of the plan was the 2017 cut in mental health services under then-Gov. Steve Bullock, which greatly impacted the workload of social workers across the state. Hess said Missoula saw the direct impact of these cuts on the mental health of many Missoulans, exacerbating housing problems.
Stubborn myths and stereotypes also hinder local efforts, say those working to dispel these misconceptions.
Broken down, 15.5 percent of Missoula’s homeless population is Native American, compared to 1.5 percent of the total population. Similarly, 4.5 percent of Missouri’s uninhabited residents are black, while only 0.9 percent of the city’s total population is of that race.
Homeless youth also tend to slip through cracks in the system, requiring closer partnerships with local schools and the University of Montana, said Sam Hilliard, an expert on coordinated admissions in Missoula.
“Everything that could have been an obstacle to a perfect housing system has only intensified,” Armstrong said.
However, one problem for systems not supported by the data center is rumors that Missoula is attracting homeless people because of the services it offers.
Hilliard said the state’s coordinated entry system shows that most homeless source profiles come from the Missoula area. This is consistent with point-in-time survey data that showed Missoula had the highest percentage of homeless residents.
One accomplishment for which Hess is particularly grateful is the 2020 emergency winter shelter on Johnson Street, with support from the federal COVID relief fund.
Trina Everhart inspects a room at the winter shelter on Johnson Street in March 2022. When she became homeless earlier this year, she couldn’t stay at the shelter because she worked there.
Before installing the winter shelter, Hess recalls that during a particularly harsh weekend in 2019, people rushed to open the Mountain Line Transit Center to shelter from extreme winter temperatures.
Homeless Billy Packard from Missoula takes shelter from the cold at a downtown bus stop in February 2019. The building is open for shelter in cold weather.
The Johnson Street Orphanage now serves 135 people. In the two winters that the shelter has been operational, it has never reached full capacity, according to Eran Pehan, the city’s Community Planning, Development & Innovation director. In the two winters that the shelter has been operational, it has never reached full capacity, according to Eran Pehan, the city’s Community Planning, Development & Innovation director. According to Eran Pehan, the city’s director of community planning, development and innovation, in the two winters that the shelter has been open, it has never been at full capacity. According to Eran Pehan, the city’s director of community planning, development and innovation, in the two winters the shelter was in use, it never reached full capacity.
For Hess, the winter shelter is an example of how local leaders can continue to improve their services to people in crisis. In a very specific way, emergency winter shelters seem to directly help save Missourians from freezing to death. During the two seasons of operation of the shelter, not a single death was recorded.
“A few years ago, this kind of death (exposure death) was common,” Hess said. “It’s just a fact of life in Missoula for many years. It won’t happen again. It won’t happen because of these deliberate actions.”
Hess is also proud that the city is using the Sleepy Inn, a property the city purchased during the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as a homeless Missouri home.
Hess touted the city’s creativity in using $1.1 million in tax increases to purchase property, as well as its ability to turn a property into a future sale. The city hopes to sell the Sleepy Inn, which will eventually be used as affordable housing and potential commercial space.
Missoula County has been a key partner for the city in its 10-year plan to end homelessness, and one of the county’s key successes is Austin French’s former home, a temporary safe open space.
Thanks to the stability and services provided by the site, which was created with federal funding in 2020, nearly 50% of TSOS residents have received permanent housing.
Hope Rescue Mission Executive Director Jim Hicks walks between tents in a temporary secure outdoor space in 2020.
For County Executive Josh Slotnick, one of the TSOS supporters, the camps are not only a real bridge out of homelessness, but also a broader curriculum to work effectively.

Post time: Oct-24-2022