Poverello staff serve Missoula’s homeless population as housing crisis worsens
MISSOULA — A weekday afternoon at the Poverello Center is business as usual. The shelter is full and the staff are struggling to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population, which continues to grow year after year.
Without systemic changes, some fear Missoula’s safety net may be on an unsustainable path, much like other U.S. cities facing high housing costs and other social challenges.
“It looks like we need more housing and higher wages,” said shelter manager Amy Allison Thompson. “If we don’t address these two issues in our community, there’s really nothing the Poverello can do. We cannot solve this problem alone. We need the help of the community to remedy this situation and bring about this change.
This winter, which has been relatively mild as winters go by, the Poverello operated at full capacity every night, representing a population of 175 people. But that wasn’t unexpected, and last summer the city and other partners planned to direct the shelter’s surplus population to the Salvation Army.
Now in its first year under the new coordinated approach, the Poverello has referred an average of 30 residents per night to the Salvation Army, helping to meet overflow needs. Thompson said the coordinated effort worked well.
“Our staff know the people who stay with us quite well,” she said. “The things we take into account are people’s trauma and their backgrounds as far as we know. Sometimes people do better in a quieter setting with fewer people. With the Salvation Army, we can make those choices.
The coordinated approach between the two shelters represents one of many changes local advocates have made in recent years to accommodate the city’s homeless population.
Along with a “housing first” model, which moves the most vulnerable to the top of the housing list, the partners have also laid the groundwork for the construction of several hundred affordable housing units permanently, although this project will not open for several years.
Meanwhile, the Poverello changed its drug and alcohol policy last year. While the shelter once operated around a zero-tolerance policy, dangerous winter weather and a lack of options for non-residents with addictions prompted the Povellos to adopt a behavior-based policy.
Along with housing and income challenges, the policy change has led to more people seeking help at the shelter, Thompson said. Like many cities, there are few other options.
“We saw a lot of people come in who hadn’t been housed for a long time. They’re actually coming to access the services, and I would say that’s a big win,” Thompson said. “It’s part of the policy we’ve adopted around a behavior-based policy instead of a no-tolerance drug and alcohol policy.”
While Thompson sees this as a positive step, it has also led to new challenges. Some drug-addicted residents also face complex medical issues, which has led to an increase in calls to emergency services.
Last week, a resident died after an assault at the shelter.
“The Poverello emphasizes safety as a number one priority for our guests and staff, as well as our volunteers,” Thompson said. “There are more opportunities for conflict with so many people in the building. All of that is really important, and it’s a priority for us at Povello to make sure people are safe here.
The incident was difficult for staff, who work long hours to serve the city’s homeless population and the challenges that entails, whether it’s a man with holes in his only pair of boots or a woman with complex medical issues.
It’s often an underestimated task that draws misguided criticism from some community members, including those who post ignorant comments on social media but have little understanding of the complexities behind the problem.
While the Poverello enjoys broad community support, reviews can be tiring.
“This whole community has a big heart, and it really shows here at Pov,” said Jesse Jaeger, director of development for the shelter. “You also have employees here who have gone through the experience of being homeless or who have had substance abuse issues. They understand the other side of the coin and really want to give back and help make the community a better place.
Thompson, a social worker who believes in social justice, said those who work closely with the homeless population ignore criticism and see their clients for who they are – people facing some of the greatest life challenges.
Everyone, she believes, deserves to be sheltered and fed, no matter what brought them to the Poverello in the first place. For some, it could be a divorce or the loss of a job. For others, it may be domestic violence, a health care crisis, or addiction.
“It’s easy for people to blame the Povello for this one way or another, but obviously we’re not causing homelessness,” Thompson said. “We are a safety net to help support homeless people. Without some big systemic changes in our community, we’re going to let people down. Ultimately, the solution to homelessness is housing.
While the city’s housing policy bears the words “plan to end homelessness,” it’s a phrase coined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and most don’t take it literally. . Rather, it aims to reduce homelessness one person at a time, and it’s something the city and other advocates have taken strategic steps to address in recent years.
The shelter’s homeless outreach team housed 20 people who were living on the outside this year, marking progress in the local program. The so-called Coordinated Entry System also reduced duplication of services and put Missoula’s most vulnerable clients on the housing list.
Other efforts have been slower to evolve but are progressing nonetheless, including the city’s new housing policy, which will see elements adopted this year. Missoula County and the city are also taking steps to increase opportunities for developers to build affordable housing.
If approved, a proposed condominium project in downtown Missoula would be required to dedicate a portion of its units to housing voucher holders, or as deed-restricted housing. Over 200 affordable housing units are also planned for two plots of land and are expected to begin construction within the next year.
The latest project, called Trinity, marks a step forward, but it will take more. With population growth of 2.5%, Missoula will need 850 new homes each year. Although this includes housing at all price points, affordable housing must be part of the offer.
“Without Trinity and other projects like Trinity, we are struggling in our community,” Thompson said. “Our community continues to grow, and this will continue to put a strain on our very small housing stock. We are in crisis here.
Income and availability are not the only barriers faced by those at the bottom of the economic ladder when looking for housing. About 40% of Poverello clients have an income, staff say, but they still don’t have access to housing.
Obstacles include high application fees, poor credit, large deposits, and even past crimes. A Poverello client, now 70, has a three-decade-old crime. Because of this, landlords in the area are reluctant to accept his housing application.
“There is virtually zero vacancy for the affordable housing stock in this community,” Jaeger said. “If you have some sort of barrier — a bad credit score, a past crime, or whatever makes it hard to compete against someone who might not have those things — it’s virtually impossible.”
Thompson said others have paid up to $500 in application fees to try to get into a place they could call home, but were unsuccessful. That money is gone and they are still homeless.
But Thompson said defenders are considering new options, including using “diversion funds” and implementing what she described as double filing.
“There are some measures that we are looking at as a community that will help,” she said. “We can organize our efforts as much as we want, but if we don’t have the housing stock, it’s difficult.