Quietly pushed back against Mount Jumbo, somewhere around the imaginary line that divides the historic upper and lower Rattlesnake neighborhoods, is a prime plot of real estate the owner is hot to unload. Inside the massive, worn structure, the TV is on. Rudy and Denise Huxtable ham it up to canned laughter and the giggles of two of the home’s more than two dozen residents.
Aside from the number of people living under the same roof, the staff of the Joseph Residence Center for low-income families tries to make this home identical to neighboring homes—Cheerios on the table, kids running and singing through the halls and Bill Cosby reruns on the tube. But with as many as 35 tenants sharing space, the building is in need of an overhaul. While some describe the residence as warm and cozy, others see it as cramped and crowded—with nine families and staff wandering around the same 10,000 square-feet day after day.
“It’s a lot better than being homeless, but we still need more space to run our programs,” says Joseph Residence program director Larry DeGarmo. “We need meeting rooms and computer rooms and, well, more space.”
DeGarmo has been at the Joseph Residence since 2001, and with umbrella organization the Poverello Center for 17 years. He remembers when the Joseph Residence first opened its doors to struggling Montana families in April of 1991. Aging even then, the structure is at least 40 years old now. And as of late it’s been developing ages spots—chipped paint, worn carpet, cracked ceiling tiles. Nothing to call the code inspector about, but enough to create a pervasive sense of wear and tear.
“It’s not unsafe or anything like that,” says DeGarmo. “But it takes a lot of time to just keep things running.”
Partly due to limited space and resources, and partly because of the large chunk of cash the Poverello stands to make from the sale of the building, Poverello director Joe Bischof hopes to unload the old Joseph Residence in favor of a bigger, better, new and improved residence.
With a little help from Missoula Housing Authority (MHA) executive director Peter Hance, Bischof thinks he can accomplish his goal.
After crossing paths at an At-Risk Housing Coalition meeting, Hance and Bischof began brainstorming about using Section 8 vouchers—federal low-income vouchers distributed through the MHA—to fund a new building. Unlike many communities, which can’t find enough people to use the vouchers, Missoula’s program is oversubscribed.
“The Joseph Residence has a waiting list,” says Bischof. “There is something like a 15 month waiting list at the MHA for the Section 8s.”
But MHA deputy director Lori Davidson says that Missoula can apply for vouchers returned to the federal government by other communities and convert them into funds for this project. So Hance, Davidson and the MHA staff put pen to paper and created a prospective plan to build a new Joseph Residence, which would be owned by the MHA and run by the Poverello.
“The cost to rehabilitate the current Joseph Residence to where it would meet Section 8 standards is really cost prohibitive,” says Bischof. “So we looked at what our options were beyond that and came up with this.”
The planned site for the building is west of the Reserve Street Home Depot. Not quite the quiet pace of the Rattlesnake valley, but hidden behind the box stores is a better location for the residents, says Bischof.
“It’s going to be an improvement in a number of areas,” he says. “The bus routes going through there are much more conducive to the families, there’s a collection of great schools there, and Reserve Street, with all its stores and businesses, provides a lot of good job opportunities for folks.”
The new residence would be equipped to handle 16 families at a time. And rather than the community living style of the current building, the new building would allow each family to live in its own separate two-bedroom apartment. Currently, there’s a lack of privacy, something that DeGarmo says wears the residents down.
“You don’t have your own kitchen or shower,” he says. “So they’ll sometimes take off before they are really ready to leave the program.” There is also a lot of energy expended on interpersonal issues, when residents should be learning independent living skills, he adds.
“You need to be responsible,” says Bischof. “And some of our residents lack those skills now or were just never taught to have them. With the new building we’ll be able to start right on the basics from the ground up. We’ll say ‘this is your place, you are responsible for it and this is what the expectations are.’”
Another advantage of the proposed facility would be that the Poverello Center wouldn’t have to deal with typical landlord headaches like frozen pipes and unplowed driveways. The MHA would fill that role and the Joseph Residence’s staff could concentrate on running programs and teaching skills.
The profit from the sale of the residence will be put in an endowment to provide the chronically underfunded Poverello with a nest egg. Aside from that money, Bischof estimates that the sale will also free up about $20,000 a year, which is the annual non-salaried operation cost of the Joseph Residence.
“It’s so great because it creates an opportunity to create a more solid financial structure, because we will be receiving cash for the sale of property.”
In early March, the Poverello Center and the MHA hope to finalize the agreement between the two organizations, but it will still be months before ground is broken. For those families forced to share halls and walls, and for the families waiting to get in, the new space can’t come soon enough.