City of Missoula opens warming shelter for homeless residents

“It’s a mark of a compassionate community to look out for the least fortunate among us. This was simply the right thing to do,” Mayor John Engen said Thursday. (Missoula Current file photo)

Homeless residents who have nowhere to stay in the evening before Missoula’s Salvation Army opens its overnight shelter at 10 p.m. now have a warm, safe option during the frigid weather.

Announced Thursday afternoon and effective immediately, Mountain Line’s downtown transit center at Ryman and Pine streets will remain open for homeless residents until 10 p.m., after which bus transportation will be provided to the overnight shelter on Russell Street.

Mountain Line will provide the bus service on weekdays, while ASUM’s UDASH bus will provide rides to the Salvation Army on weekends. City police will provide a safety presence at the transit center.

Mayor John Engen convened a coalition of City Council members, Mountain Line bus officials, city police and the Associated Students of the University of Montana to provide the “warming solutions.”

Engen said the city is working to enlist volunteers and the faith community to serve as evening staff at the transit center.

The mayor praised the “collaborative brainstorming and generosity of all the partners in the solutions.”

“Local government works hard to provide solutions for every citizen of Missoula,” he said in a written release. “It’s a mark of a compassionate community to look out for the least fortunate among us. This was simply the right thing to do.”

In recent weeks, a loose-knit group of advocates for Missoula’s homeless population has attended Monday night City Council meetings to ask for a downtown warming shelter. A “warming” shelter, they emphasized, is not the same thing as an overnight sleeping shelter, leaving many homeless residents with a dangerously long period of  time outdoors in the cold after dark.

The Poverello Center must turn people away once it reaches its 175-person overnight maximum. And while the Salvation Army opened a nighttime shelter for the winter with $50,000 in community donations, it does not open until 10 p.m. and is a considerable distance from downtown – too far to walk in the freezing conditions of recent weeks.

The advocates at last Monday’s meeting said they had been trying to provide rides for homeless residents to the Salvation Army, but couldn’t justify dropping anyone off before 10 p.m. because of the cold temperatures and long wait outside the doors.

Engen met with those citizens recently as well, so they would know the city was working to piece together a solution.

The Poverello Center and the Salvation Army have been able to serve all individuals needing overnight shelter, the city said Thursday.

The only gap has occurred before the Salvation Army opens its nightly shelter after the agency’s regular programming concludes. Problematic as well has been the lack of transportation from downtown to Russell Street.

The city’s warming shelter will remain open through the cold snap, likely about two weeks, and will be in place seven days a week, along with the bus service.

“Public and staff concerns made it clear that we have a gap to address,” said Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg said in Thursday’s announcement. “Council members, city administration and our partners in the community worked together to fill that gap.”