“Homelessness is very complex:” Advocates look to change public misconceptions

A woman gets her hair cut during a recent outreach project with area homeless. The city, county and its local partners are working to change misconceptions around the issue and the many faces of homelessness. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Talk of sheltering the city’s homeless population over the winter touched on a number of other fronts this week, including community misconceptions around homelessness, flawed opinions in the media, and long-term solutions set in place to meet the challenge.

Housing officials and local government leaders remain unified in their message, saying Missoula has a moral obligation to do its part, and it’s taking steps to address a problem that plagues cities across the country.

“Contrary to what some, be that the media or the general public, have erroneously assumed, there has been a ton of work going on in planning relative to this coming winter season and how we can respond collectively to the needs of our community,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

“We have a moral obligation to help our brothers and sisters, our friends and family who are in need, who are the most vulnerable in our community and might otherwise die on the streets.”

Theresa Williams with the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development said data collected from the city’s homeless population strikes at the heart of the challenge.

Some ended up homeless because they couldn’t pay rent. Others became homeless as a result of domestic violence. Untimely medical bills affected others, while issues around equity, poverty and oppression also play a role.

“Homelessness itself is very complex,” she said. “There are a lot of reasons why people in our community rely upon the support that we offer.”

Williams said roughly 15-20% of the city’s homeless population is considered chronically homeless. The majority remain hidden in the shadows. Stereotypes around the issue remain a challenge, she added.

“I think most people think it’s that person panhandling on the street or outside the courthouse, but that’s a relatively small population,” she said. “The majority are folks who are staying at the Poverello, and a lot of people are able to quickly resolve their situation.”

For those who are chronically homeless, the city is pushing a housing first model. It looks to provide permanent supportive housing that removes as many barriers as possible.

“By offering housing with no stipulations, you will see health improvement and cost savings in our community, and also save lives,” Williams said. “They will die on the streets if we don’t provide housing.”

A national expert on supportive housing addressed the city last February, saying that while the moral costs of homelessness are well known, the financial impacts often go overlooked. Cities that have invested in a housing first model have saved millions of dollars in service costs, benefiting taxpayers over time while giving the most vulnerable a new chance at life.

City Council member Stacie Anderson touched on that point, saying long-term efforts to resolve the challenge are taking place, even as short-term solutions are unfolded ahead of winter.

“This is a temporary fix working toward a long-term solution,” said Anderson. “Yes, there will be a cost to that long-term solution, but there’s already a cost to our community in what is happening now, and it’s hidden in the police and fire budgets and the write-offs to Community and St. Pat’s (hospitals) that affect all the rest of us who access those services.”

Council member Heather Harp recently returned from the annual meeting of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, where homelessness was widely discussed.

“We’ve had conversations on why Missoula is being the one city that has to step up and carry that burden,” said Harp. “The reality is, all the big cities are doing their part. We think it only happens to us, but the reality is quite different. It’s our privilege and responsibility to help those who need helping.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at martin@missoulacurrent.com