Shelter for intoxicated homeless would save human, taxpayer costs, officer says

Shelagh More, a member of the Missoula Police Department who patrols the Downtown Business Improvement District, described the rewards and challenges of working with Missoula’s displaced homeless population. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Shelagh More encountered the young man early Tuesday during her rounds with the city’s homeless individuals and asked him where he’d slept that night.

The man responded by saying he’d found a safe place on the ground where he wouldn’t get robbed – his documents stolen and the little cash he carried.

So go the concerns of life on the street.

“We’re checking these locations every day, during work hours and after dark, and it’s not necessarily to do enforcement, to write tickets and make arrests,” said More. “They’re welfare checks.”

More, a member of the Missoula Police Department who patrols the Downtown Business Improvement District, was one of a dozen community partners to join a panel discussion Tuesday evening on homelessness and the progress Missoula has made in being more intentional in solving it.

While the issue will never be wholly solved – and the city will never “end” homelessness as the title of its 10-year plan suggests – changes to the local system of services, organizations and advocates can ensure that homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.

“This really is about leadership and showing up and being intentional,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said during the forum. “Homelessness is not a retractable problem in our community. It’s a solvable problem in our community.”

Tuesday’s panel covered a wide range of issues (the Missoula Current will have more extensive coverage on Wednesday). More’s story, however, came in response to one question regarding the need and value of a shelter for intoxicated homeless individuals.

The city’s homeless shelter has a policy that doesn’t permit intoxicated individuals to stay the night. That leaves Missoula with no place to accommodate that segment of the population.

“On any given night there’s going to be one or two people, male or female, sleeping under a bridge,” said More. “If there’s a dry spot that’s high and they’re out of the water – people are sleeping everywhere. In doorways, culverts, parks, the wooded areas along the river bank, both sides, all up and down Kim Williams Trail and east of university. There’s camps everywhere.”

While that doesn’t come as a surprise to Missoula residents who frequent the downtown district in the summertime or take to the trails, the cost of living on the street carries both personal and social consequences.

Providing housing for intoxicated homeless individuals remains an unfilled community niche, More suggested.

“It’s a significant reduction in costs and calls for service and call volume, not attending to that person for medical transports, incarceration, court fees, public attorneys, and all the things that are incumbent with doing enforcement on these individuals,” More said.

Boil it down, however, and it’s more than simply saving taxpayers money.

“It’s a huge savings, but psychologically and emotionally, its’ great for the individual and for the community, because we can focus our attention on potentially more problematic things than the residual, repeated calls for minor things, constantly.”

More said failure carries real consequences.

“Unfortunately, a year ago at this time, there was an individual who wasn’t seen on the street in his usual locations,” she said. “We did locate him and he’d perished due to medical conditions and extreme weather. These people do perish if they’re not getting services and attended to every day.”