Missoula churches can provide emergency winter shelter for homeless this year

Every year, Missoula residents gather to remember those homeless residents who died in the previous year. Every year, some of those deaths are caused by exposure to the winter cold and snow. (Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula’s religious gathering places can provide emergency shelter for the city’s homeless and at-risk residents under a temporary ordinance unanimously adopted by the City Council.

The measure buys time for city and county officials to write a permanent ordinance and begin work on a long-term solution to the growing need for so-called “extreme weather shelters” from November through March.

By state law, the interim ordinance must be replaced within six months.

“Missoula lacks adequate services to address the increased need of our homeless and at-risk populations and our shelter system during extreme weather events,” said Jenn Gress of Development Services.

The city’s extreme winter cold creates unsafe overcrowding at the Poverello Center, the city’s permanent homeless shelter. When the population there reaches 175, people are turned away.

“That means we have people sleeping outdoors and unsheltered in places that were not meant for human habitation,” Gress told council members and the public.

The interim ordinance amends city zoning law to specifically allow extreme weather shelters in places of religious assembly: synagogues, temples, mosques and churches.

A number of Missoula churches as well as the Salvation Army have suggested they might want to provide winter shelter for those individuals who the Poverello Center cannot serve at its West Broadway shelter and soup kitchen.

The Salvation Army provided emergency winter shelter last winter, after community members provided the funds needed for staffing. At least one other community group will do the same this winter, beginning Nov. 1.

Gress said that shelter’s name and plans will be announced next week.

The temporary ordinance will allow other religious groups to get involved in providing warm, safe shelters on Missoula’s coldest nights. The city will provide a list of available shelters to those in need of help.

Religious groups that opt to provide emergency winter shelter must follow these guidelines, under the interim ordinance:

  1. An extreme weather shelter is temporary, and subordinate, to the primary use. Shelter facilities are intended to provide refuge for individuals who are homeless or at risk during extreme weather events, and must comply with all applicable city codes, e.g. building and fire codes.
  2. Agencies providing shelter should contact the Housing and Community Development office to create a management plan that addresses the criteria listed in section 20.40.045B.
  3. Management plans should be reviewed annually with the assistance of the Housing and Community Development office.

Eran Pehan, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, said the interim ordinance doesn’t use a “temperature trigger” to activate the emergency shelter zoning, but rather designates the entire period from Nov. 1 through March 31 as “extreme weather.”

“In our community, the period from Nov. 1 through March 31 is what we refer to as hypothermia season,” she said. “That is the period during which people could die on the streets.”

Now, homeless and at-risk residents will have places to go throughout that time.

A discussion about the longer-term provision of winter shelter is set for 11:20 a.m. Wednesday during a joint meeting of the Missoula City Council’s Committee of the Whole and the Missoula Board of County Commissioners.

The permanent ordinance will go before the Planning Board in November, at which time public comment will be taken. Then the City Council will hold a public hearing in December, and vote on the amendments. Implementation should come in mid-January.

The interim ordinance – work on which began last winter – drew praise this week from politicians and service providers alike.

“Good work by everybody,” said Jim Morton of the Human Resource Council.

Added City Councilwoman Gwen Jones: “I’m glad we are having these discussions now and appreciate all the work that went into this. There’s some misconception that because we are hearing it now, it just came across our desk. But it’s been months and months of work. It’s a hard problem to attack.”

“The misconception that this is coming at the last moment couldn’t be farther from true,” said Councilman Jordan Hess. “We’ve been working on a permanent solution since last year. I appreciate all the hard work. These legislation has the potential to save lives this winter.”