Mayor: Safety of Missoula’s homeless residents a top priority during brutal cold

“The Poverello has been exceptionally helpful in opening their doors,” the mayor said Monday. “But they simply cannot let some people in who have been put on ‘permanent out.’ There are real reasons that people are put on ‘permanent out,’ and we hope that through our work on a 10-year plan (to end homelessness) that we can come up with a solution for those folks. But it’s really, really hard.” (Missoula Current file photo)

The plight of Missoula’s homeless residents during the ongoing brutal cold is “top of mind” for a host of municipal and social service workers, Mayor John Engen assured City Council members on Monday night.

It has been all winter – and for six months before winter’s arrival, he said. But it remains a challenge to keep every individual safe and warm during back-to-back bouts of subzero temperatures.

When Mountain Line’s downtown transfer center closed as an emergency warming shelter late last week, the Poverello Center opened its doors on West Broadway, Engen said.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army opened its overnight shelter on Russell Street 30 minutes early to further bridge the gap.

And now the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, the Union Gospel Mission and the Poverello Center are joining forces to provide safe transportation from the Poverello’s warming shelter to the Salvation Army’s overnight accommodations.

The Poverello has a cap of 175 on the number of people who can stay there overnight, so during the coldest weather – Monday night, for example – some homeless residents must travel to the Salvation Army at 9:30 p.m.

Other individuals cannot stay at the Poverello – even if there is room – because of past behavioral issues, Engen said. Their safety is the most difficult challenge, but they are not being ignored or forgotten, he said.

“The Poverello has been exceptionally helpful in opening their doors,” the mayor said. “But they simply cannot let some people in who have been put on ‘permanent out.’ There are real reasons that people are put on ‘permanent out,’ and we hope that through our work on a 10-year plan (to end homelessness) that we can come up with a solution for those folks. But it’s really, really hard.”

Several council members thanked the mayor and others for this winter’s enhanced efforts to provide warmth for homeless residents.

“I know it is incredibly challenging,” said Councilman Jordan Hess. “But I also know that this winter is better than last winter, in terms of our response, and next winter will be better than this winter. We will continue to move forward.”

But Councilwoman Julie Armstrong pleaded for stronger action and a reallocation of funds, lest some homeless residents freeze to death in the days to come.

“I feel pretty strongly that we are going to hear about people passing away, freezing to death in the next few days,” Armstrong said. “I feel we could reallocate funds where we are sending people on goodwill trips or spending $25,000 for a piece of art or $21,000 for playground infill.”

“This may not be a problem that can be solved by money,” she said, “but if it’s a problem that can be alleviated, delayed or helped by a little bit of money, I say we think creatively. Maybe we need to think more emotionally about situations like this.”

Engen assured council members that the safety of Missoula’s homeless residents “is a priority for municipal government. Your staff has been spending lots of time working this out, and we spent a helluva lot of time before it was an emergent situation.”

The mayor said Missoula’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness calls for a variety of approaches “and we are working on those, including what we think is a shelter situation that will allow folks who are really challenging to have safe, supervised housing on a permanent basis.”

The catch? “We are two years away from that probably today,” Engen said. “But we are working on that as fast as we can.”

The same is true for addiction services, which will involve a wider group of agencies in finding a solution, he added. “That is part and parcel of what we have to figure out as a community.”

“I just wanted to make sure you are all aware that this is top of mind for people in my office and for people who are responsible for providing these services,” he said. “It is a big deal, and it is really challenging.”

Poverello Center to provide warming shelter for homeless; work begins on long-term solution