With nighttime temperatures dropping, the city of Missoula is hurrying to add more shelter space for the homeless this winter.
On Wednesday, the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee agreed to come in for a special meeting the day after Thanksgiving to vote on allowing the Salvation Army to shelter around 30 homeless people during the winter.
The proposed Interim Zoning Ordinance would authorize the Salvation Army to temporarily operate its facility at 355 S. Russell Ave. as a homeless shelter between early December and April 1.
The Poverello Center decided it can safely host only 175 people a night, and the Union Gospel Mission’s Toole Avenue facility can no longer provide the additional room because it can’t meet new requirements. That’s been leaving about 20 to 30 people out in the cold, said Reaching Home coordinator Teresa Williams.
“Without a warm and safe place to stay, the alternative is that we’ll see an increase in ER and hospital visits, arrests and jail stays and cold weather-related injuries and deaths,” Williams said. “This request is being made due to the urgency of the issue.”
Fortunately, the Salvation Army facility is already set up to house a few dozen people, but new staff and volunteers are needed.
St. Patrick Hospital is providing community benefit funds, and the Salvation Army has developed a budget to provide services through April 1.
But the organization needs the blessing of the City Council.
Councilman Bryan von Lossberg said the request came in only on Friday, so he was surprised that city staff was able to put the ordinance together so quickly that it could be introduced Wednesday.
“Taking no action puts lives at risk,” von Lossberg said.
Normally, the City Council would have to wait until Nov. 26 to approve the interim ordinance because public hearings must be announced seven days in advance. Since the announcement goes out Thursday, the end of a seven-day period lands right on the Thanksgiving holiday.
Temperatures are soon predicted to drop into the teens, so Councilwoman Julie Armstrong asked if anything could be to speed up approval. Since the seven-day notice is required by law, Armstrong asked how many might be available at 3 p.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Seven council members raised their hands, enough to approve the temporary action.
Having done what they could to address the urgency, some council members said the proposal for next winter should be made earlier.
“There actually have been discussions around this for months. It’s taken a long time. When it became clear that the Union Gospel Mission wouldn’t or couldn’t continue there, ideas started going. But it took a while to reach this point,” von Lossberg said.