Missoula looks to correct lack of winter shelter for homeless, at-risk population

In recent years, the city of Missoula has struggled to provide safety to its homeless and at-risk population, going so far as to open the downtown bus station as a warming hut. But changes to city code, and a new housing project planned off Mullan Road, could provide a long-term solution. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Lacking a means to house the homeless and at-risk populations in extreme weather conditions, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday took the first step in changing city code to permit temporary warming shelters from November to March.

In recent years, the city has struggled to provide safe winter quarters for those in need, going so far as to open the downtown bus station as a warming hut. But changes to city code, and a new at-risk housing project planned off Mullan Road, could provide a long-term solution.

“In 2018, this was exacerbated when the Poverello Center was serving an average of 195 individuals a night,” said Eran Pehan, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development. “The strain this placed on both the staff and the facility led the Poverello to cap its winter shelter at 175 individuals.”

In past years, the Union Gospel Mission provided a winter shelter on Toole Avenue to alleviate overcrowding at the Poverello. But that required a conditional permit, which the mission couldn’t secure due to its antiquated building.

As a result, the warming shelter was forced to close after the winter of 2017. The following year, the Salvation Army stepped in and opened a shelter on Russell Street. It served its purpose for the winter, after which city staff began seeking a long-term solution.

“We began meeting very early this year to ensure we were prepared for the upcoming winter season,” Pehan said. “We wanted to ensure we had a program in place, the funding and a facility to meet that need this year.”

Pehan said the necessary funding is now secured and the Poverello will serve as the lead provider. A host location has been identified for the season. No further details were available on the funding amount or the location.

Pehan said such details are forthcoming.

“We’re still working through the details regarding programming and that site location,” she said. “We can assure you that Missoula will have a comprehensive response to safely shelter everyone in need from Nov. 1 to March 1 of every year.”

Pehan said similar funding will be needed over the next three winter seasons. After that, an extreme weather shelter will be provided by a new affordable housing development planned off Mullan Road.

That project, dubbed Trinity housing, will include a navigation center on the ground floor. The center will provide an array of social services.

“The navigation center would host that extreme weather shelter during the periods of the year where that’s required, and it would address any overflow needs from our current provider (Poverello),” Pehan said. “The approach we’re taking this year and the next three years would likely be temporary, but we’re developing a model we think will serve us well into the future.”

The Trinity project is a development planned adjacent to the Missoula County Detention Center. It’s expected to begin construction in 2021 and open by the winter of 2022. It will include 200 units of affordable housing for high-barrier tenants.

“We anticipate, depending on securing the funding through tax credits, that the developers will break ground in the spring of 2021,” Pehan said. “We envision we’ll need a process like this for the next three seasons.”

Until then, proposed changes to city ordinance will allow providers to offer shelter to homeless and at-risk populations during extreme weather events, otherwise known as the winter season. The ordinance would limit the hours of operation and the number of months it could open.

The ordinance also would require a management plan and oversight by the Office of Housing and Community Development. The changes would amend the definition of a religious assembly, allowing churches to provide shelter once approved by the city.

But moving the amended ordinance through the process could take months, and an interim ordinance is also being proposed. It would likely take effect next month as the permanent ordinance winds its way through the approval process.

“This interim ordinance for the extreme weather shelter is being requested because the final adoption of the general ordinance will be in mid-November, with an implementation date of mid-December,” said Gen Gress of Development Services. “That’s well into our winter season.”

The committee will review the interim ordinance next week and set a public hearing for October.

“We’re doing parallel processes here,” said council member John DiBari. “There will be an interim ordinance to fill the timing gap so there’s continuity in service.”

Council member Bryan von Lossberg said city staff have been working toward a solution since February. He believes the city is on the path to solving what’s been an ongoing challenge.

“It’s been an extraordinarily challenging subject to address,” he said. “We’re not across the finish line yet. We didn’t wait to kick off planning around this. We were doing this as last winter was ending.”