Missoula develops system to make homelessness ‘one time only’

Poverello Center housing retention specialist Sue Ellerman (left), and Partnership Health Center housing navigator Yvonne Cooper help individuals experiencing homelessness file paperwork for programs and retain housing. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Missoula hasn’t ended homelessness, but remains focused on developing a system where the lack of housing is “rare, brief and one time only,” government and social service advocates said Tuesday.

At a nighttime session, the city of Missoula’s Housing and Community Development officers and other key players updated community members on Reaching Home, Missoula’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.

The initiative started in 2012 with two phases, “creating rapid, visible and meaningful change” and “building a coordinated system to end homelessness.”

In its third and final phase, “making adjustments to ensure sustainability,” agencies will work to maintain a system that responds to homelessness by providing rapid access to safe, sustainable long-term housing.

“We haven’t ended homelessness yet here in Missoula, but in other communities that have, trying to sustain that momentum and infrastructure has been really challenging,” Reaching Home coordinator Theresa Williams said.

That’s why Missoula leaders have developed a Coordinated Entry System, or CES, that provides multiple access points for those experiencing homelessness to receive help. These access points include agencies that are advertised as coordinated assessment centers and provide a “no wrong door” approach, meaning a person can go to any of the agencies and enter the system.

Missoula’s YWCA, the Poverello Center, the Salvation Army and others provide those assessment centers.

“We want to ensure we have a system where homelessness is rare, brief and one time only,” Williams said.

Some Missoula residents still will experience homelessness, but they’ll find a direct line to access needed resources and housing, she said.

According to a 2018 point-in-time survey, Missoula had 319 people experiencing homelessness, the highest population among 10 Montana cities that made a count.

Missoula also had the highest number of chronically homeless residents in the survey, at 46 individuals.

However, the city’s total homeless population is dropping, from 538 in 2015 to 395 in 2016, and lower each year since.

In November 2018, Coordinated Entry System providers started using the Homeless Management Information System, a software system that collects data and service needs for individuals in Missoula and across the state.

“We had a case where someone came through our Coordinated Entry System here and then relocated to Bozeman, and Bozeman was able to serve them quickly because his information was already in the system,” Williams said in an interview. “We also know that person’s outcome. Now that we’re working statewide, we’ll have that data.”

Two new positions were recently created to help with the initiative, including a housing navigator through Partnership Health Center and a housing retention specialist through the Poverello Center.

Yvonne Cooper, the housing navigator, contacts individuals directly or through their case managers and helps them complete the documents needed to apply for programs like the Montana Housing Authority, which provides housing vouchers for the homeless.

Sue Ellerman is the housing retention specialist, and assists new tenants who may have never had a lease or haven’t lived in an apartment for years.

“What we find in this work is that, if you’re homeless and you’re trying to get into housing, there’s a lot of documents required to get into these programs, and you have to prove that you’re chronically homeless,” Williams said.

There are housing barriers, and many landlords aren’t lining up to rent to this population, she said, but helping individuals obtain identification cards, birth certificates, and pinpointing past rental experience are essential in moving through the process.

Laurie Pope, a peer support recovery specialist with the Open Aids Alliance, experienced homelessness herself for three years, and knows how difficult it was to get help before the coordinated system was implemented.

“Back in 2012 when this was first happening, there was absolutely no communication, no coordination. It was ‘fend for yourself,’ and a lot of, ‘it’s your fault, you got yourself in this situation,’ ” Pope said.

Looking ahead to the end of the 10-year initiative in 2022, Housing and Community Development and its partner agencies want to continue to collaborate, track criteria to end homelessness, supply permanent housing interventions and address barriers in the system.

With new software, cities will know how many times a person has been homeless and for how long, as well as how to assist them.

“We’re hoping that, with the new data we’re collecting and the new software we’re using, we can dive in deeper, understand and know them by their name,” Williams said.

There are many reasons for an individual or family to experience homelessness, including mental illness, substance abuse, loss of case managers due to state budget cuts, and a recent release from incarceration.

Randy Krastel, the Business Improvement District downtown officer with the Missoula Police Department, said there are stereotypes associated with homelessness, but knowing that anyone can be affected and providing hope is key to helping people transition from the streets or shelters.

“It’s not age dependent or race dependent. It’s homelessness. Somebody is out of work, out of a place to live, down on their luck, and it’s amazing just giving somebody hope and a direction, which you all can do too, it’ll change their life and yours,” Krastel said.