MISSOULA – The impending cold winter weather is going to hit Missoula’s homeless population hard this year.
There are a couple of the dynamics this year that will contribute to a difficult winter housing situation for people who are particularly vulnerable in Missoula.
The population living with mental illness who are unable or unwilling to enter a big shelter like the Poverello and those who are chronically inebriated and have fewer options for shelter will be among those facing difficulty during the cold weather months.
People have sheltered overnight at the Union Gospel Mission for the past two winters. Last year, they eventually moved into the Salvation Army building at the end of the cold season to fill the need.
“Local community services like the police department, fire department, hospitals, they were either escorting people to that, or sending them to the warming shelter, and so we averaged 29 people a night,” Union Gospel Mission of Missoula Executive Director Don Evans said.
But both locations were shut down due to a city ordinance so now there is no place in the city for these people to go. Combined with the lower cap for people allowed overnight in the Poverello — from 205 to 175 — dozens more people will be without a place to stay overnight.
There are several local groups who have been meeting to figure out what can be done for this winter. Evans says hotel vouchers, staffing and other issues and options are all on the table.
The Salvation Army or the Union Gospel Mission of Missoula could apply for a temporary permit to get around the city ordinance, but that could take months to complete.
But a solution can’t be found, there will be no warming shelter in Missoula this winter.
“We are really endeavoring to work together to figure out the best way to take care of people. And, it will never match up to everybody’s idea of how its supposed to be done,” Evans said.
“But I would tell our community that we really are looking for the best way to do things collaboratively, so we make the greatest impact,” Evans added.
There’s a high price to pay for being homeless in the winter. Staff at the Union Gospel Mission of Missoula report that five people in the most vulnerable element of the homeless community died last year of exposure outside in freezing temperatures.
The director of the Poverello Center has told MTN News they are providing support and ideas, but don’t have funding.
Meanwhile, the City of Missoula’s housing program — which focuses on rapid and more permanent housing solutions — is also are at the table. The Open Aid Alliance and YWCA are also involved in the discussions.
The Union Gospel Mission of Missoula and the Salvation Army are willing to provide the service if it can be worked out, but that solution is still pending.
Reporting by Augusta McDonnell for MTN News