Gimme shelter 

For 33 years the Poverello Center has helped Missoula’s most vulnerable plan for their futures. Now the homeless shelter must also address its own.

During lunchtime at the Poverello Center, the dozens of people who show up for the free midday meal face relatively easy questions: Spaghetti or ham-and-bean soup? Baked potato or broccoli? It’s a welcome relief from the more pressing long-term questions—Where to sleep? How far can this month’s paycheck stretch?—that patrons of Missoula’s homeless shelter encounter daily.

Upstairs, where the Poverello Center’s staff works, a wholly different set of questions fill the air. Ellie Hill, the shelter’s recently appointed executive director, is busy charting the future of an organization whose success intimately impacts the lives of thousands each year. And it’s ironic, if not surprising, for the nonprofit shelter to find itself staring down an uncertain path much like the clients it serves.

As is the case at any donor-dependent organization, money is always an issue at the Poverello. While Hill hopes to address the challenge with an upcoming capital campaign, the center also faces long-term problems presented by an aging facility with deficiencies that make it inaccessible to many would-be clients. It either needs to renovate or move to a new downtown location, and Hill says it’s her primary goal to accomplish one or the other to ensure the center’s future.

A prime piece of downtown real estate and longstanding community support work to the Poverello’s advantage as it moves forward. And the Poverello’s needs also happen to be coming to a head at the same time the city is engaged in major long-term planning, which creates the potential for both entities to collaborate on solutions that could benefit them both. But right now, there are more questions than answers.

The Poverello Center is no stranger to uncertainty and need. Day in, day out, for more than 33 years, the downtown homeless shelter has attended to the most basic needs of Missoula’s most vulnerable populations: the homeless and the hungry. Besides offering warm meals, hot showers and safe beds, the Poverello Center has also taken on the onus of helping the needy secure medical care, work, permanent housing and counseling. It helps solve the most basic problems and most fundamental questions facing an increasing number of Missoulians each day. Now it’s working to address its own challenges.

The big, blue house at 535 Ryman St. is much more than simply a refuge for the homeless. Each day, the Poverello offers free meals that typically draw between 150 and 175 for lunch, and 100 for dinner, says kitchen manager Jesse Schraufnagel. That adds up to nearly 100,000 meals a year, not including the sack lunches prepared for workers who can’t afford to buy a midday meal. It also feeds the Missoula community through its food pantry, where anyone can fill up a bag of groceries. In 2006, it gave away groceries to nearly 9,500 people and families.

In its upstairs men’s and women’s dorm rooms, each outfitted with rows of bunk beds, the Poverello sleeps about 75 people each night, providing more than 15,000 nights of shelter in 2006. Free showers are available to residents and nonresidents alike. People can stay up to 30 days at the center, though patronage by those who have been drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden, a policy that staff enforces by issuing random breathalyzer tests. The Missoula City-County Health Department’s Partnership Health Center runs a nurse’s station on site, where people can get treatment or referrals for medical problems, and the Western Montana Mental Health Center offers mental health counseling. The attic has been converted into a free second-hand store staffed by volunteers and has a wide selection of clothing for men, women and children.

Beyond the Ryman Street facility, the Poverello also helps provide transitional housing for veterans and families who used to live on the streets. It partnered with the Missoula Housing Authority to create the Valor House, a residence for 17 homeless veterans, and the Joseph Residence at Maclay Commons, which 16 families can call home for up to two years while working with Poverello staff to find permanent housing and the skills and jobs to maintain it. Until recently, the Poverello operated the Joseph Residence on its own at a location up the Rattlesnake before partnering with the Missoula Housing Authority to build the larger, new facility in early 2006.

All told, the Poverello’s operations cost about $100,000 each month to maintain, and Hill says between 70 and 80 percent of that goes into the Ryman Street facility.

“[Eighty thousand dollars] a month to keep this place open is not an easy task in an economy like Missoula has,” she says, “and we—unlike a lot of nonprofits—get about 85 percent of that from just donations, which means our grant money is a very small proportion of our funding…The Missoula community is a huge, huge part of keeping us afloat.”

Money isn’t the only support Missoulians lend. Frankie Feinstein, the operations manager and volunteer coordinator whom Hill calls “the heart of the Pov,” says some 19,000 volunteers helped the Poverello in 2006. In addition, local restaurants and grocery stores make daily food donations, and thousands of pounds of canned foods come courtesy of school food drives and openhanded individuals.

What many in the community may be surprised to learn is who exactly uses all of these services. Only 20 percent of the Poverello’s clients on Ryman Street are what its staff terms “chronically homeless,” meaning those who turn to the center for help repeatedly in the course of living or traveling in a homeless lifestyle. The vast majority of those who turn up at the center for food or shelter, Hill says, are the working poor who can’t quite make ends meet or people whose lives briefly fall apart due to a broken-down car, divorce or an injury not covered by health insurance. For most people, the center is a safety net that catches people at their worst moments, helps get them back on their feet and slips out of their lives again.

Jon Graham, 58, is a good example. Following a string of bad luck, he’s been sleeping at the Poverello for the last five nights. He recently moved to Missoula from North Carolina, he says, and found work at a local bookstore. But when his car broke down and he couldn’t make it across town to work (Graham didn’t live near a bus route), he lost his job and couldn’t make rent. Now he’s working at DirecTV and saving money to put toward another place to call his own. In the meantime, he wakes up every morning to perform the chores required of every Poverello resident and then heads off to work, knowing he’ll have a place to eat and clean up at the end of the day.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but they’re about 30 days away from being homeless if they lose their job,” Graham says. “And once that happens, it’s hard to get back.”

Hill says the profile of the shelter’s clients has been the biggest revelation she’s encountered at her new job. The public’s perception of the Poverello may be largely formed by the groups of hobos seen loitering on Ryman Street or other parts of downtown, but she says most people who use the shelter’s services are average, every-day Missoulians.

“I suppose I was a bit naïve too,” says Hill. “I thought the Poverello Center was much more about the homelessness we see on the street, the homelessness we see lined up outside of the soup kitchen…Most of the people who even stay the night here have jobs and are the working poor. That’s been the biggest lesson to me of what an indispensable public service this is.”

Seeing Poverello residents she knows at their daily jobs waiting tables, for instance, has changed the way Hill sees the center.

“It’s an eye-opening experience when you have lunch at the Pov and there’s an elderly woman with her walker who just got out of the Mayo Clinic, her spouse has died, she used to be a fifth-grade teacher in Missoula and she’s living at the Poverello,” Hill says. “And I think Missoulians—even the most progressive ones—don’t really understand that, because I know I didn’t.”

On a tour of the Poverello’s three-story, labyrinthine facility, which has been slowly remodeled and added onto as needs have dictated over past decades, Hill shows and tells some of the catalysts spurring her quest for improving the facility. Her quick smile and contagious laugh offset any mounting concern, making it clear why the Poverello’s board of directors saw fit to appoint such a charismatic leader at a critical time.

Hill, who previously launched Pine Street’s Ellie Blue Timeless Gifts in 2005, has breathed fresh energy into the shelter’s efforts since joining the Poverello in November 2006. Her extensive involvement in local civic and volunteer organizations, as well as her experience as a district attorney in Boise, Idaho, seems to make a good match for an organization that has churned through four executive directors since 2001.

“She brings a level of community involvement that’s beyond what I’ve developed in 30 years,” says Dave Armerding, president of the Poverello’s board of directors. “And [she has] a kind of connectedness to people who I think are potentially or are currently donors, and to people who care a lot about the existence of the Poverello.”

Hill says part of her mission as the new director is to carry the organization forward by addressing building needs, which, in turn, implies a major focus on fund-raising. The two main issues—lack of adequate space and a facility that’s deteriorated under years of heavy use—are results of steadily rising demand that’s occurred over the Poverello’s history.

When the center opened in 1974, Bob and Mary Palmer, two Jesuit volunteers working with St. Francis Xavier Church, simply wanted to create a place where the hungry could be brought in from the cold and fed. They worked with a Catholic women’s group, Third Order of St. Francis, to set up a dining hall in the Knights of Columbus hall on Pine Street, says Bob Palmer. Its name, which Bob Palmer credits to other community volunteers, means “little poor man.”

On March 18, 1974, the center served its first meal, though organizers were discouraged when only one man showed up for the first four days that Poverello was up and running.

As remembered in a history penned by the Poverello’s first director, June Kenny, a local pastor convinced the organizers not to give up: “He said, ‘You can’t quit. Remember, if you only feed one man today that is one man that didn’t have to go hungry.’ By the end of the week several more came and then as word got around we had a full house every day.”

As needs increased over the years, the Poverello began adding the services available today. And while additions and remodels have managed to extend the life and usefulness of the building, Poverello staff say they’ve reached the building’s capacity.

“Every nook and cranny has been utilized,” says Hill.

The most significant and pressing challenges are the lack of handicapped access in the shelter’s dorms and the fact that there’s no space to take in families with children. That’s a big deal for Missoula’s only emergency shelter, and Hill is adamant the Poverello Center address those issues soon.

“Those two unmet needs right now in Missoula are so pressing that, as executive director, I won’t go another year without making sure that’s where we go next,” Hill says.

Melissa Gordon, who coordinates Missoula’s At-Risk Housing Coalition for the local Office of Planning and Grants, says the lack of emergency family housing in Missoula has been the most pressing concern identified by the coalition for several years running. Hill says it’s difficult to turn desperate, homeless families away, but the Poverello won’t accept children for overnight stays until it has the flexibility to separate its single residents from families because of the potential threat posed by clients who are mentally ill or come to the center with a criminal background.

“To not be able to serve that large segment of our society [families and handicapped] is inconsistent with our entire mission at the Poverello Center,” Hill says, “and that’s to serve all who ask.”

One block south of the Poverello Center sits the Missoula Police Department, snugly tucked into the bulging seams of City Hall. Assistant Police Chief Mark Muir, the point man for the city’s effort to build a new police headquarters, says the Poverello’s ongoing search for more room hasn’t been lost on the city as it undergoes an effort to secure new space itself.

[::INSERTAD::]Muir remembers in 1991 when the police department’s offices accommodated 58 officers. Today there are 103, and growing, and the 16 civilian employees at the department has increased to 22.

“We have become very creative, over time, at wedging into new spaces,” Muir says with marked humor standing in a hallway that cubicles have been shoehorned into.

New bodies aren’t the only factor eating away at available space. Says Muir: “When I started in 1991, we had three computers in the department; now we have 70.”

In the “official break room” a visitor with stretched-out arms can almost touch each wall at once. In the basement is one bathroom to serve 125 employees. The squeeze shows too in the police department’s evidence rooms, which are tightly packed with stacks growing close to the ceiling; Muir says the department spent $5,000 last year renting mini-storage spaces around town to accommodate evidence overflow. The police aren’t the only ones affected by the ever-growing crunch at City Hall. Says Muir of the tight quarters employees endure in the information technology department: “Criminals get more space in jail than they get in their office upstairs.”

What these details all add up to is the city’s need to create a new headquarters for its police department, and fast. Enter the Poverello Center.

Muir says a steering committee of city and community leaders worked together to identify eight potential locations for the new police headquarters in downtown, with the favorite option being the half block on which the Poverello Center now sits. Muir and Hill both say the concept of utilizing the center’s current site for the new police headquarters has the potential to be a win-win for both parties. The city would attain a property near its other offices and the Poverello would have a reason and opportunity to relocate.

Muir says the city intends to bring before city voters in the November 2007 election a general obligation bond request in the ballpark of $12 million. The hope is to win approval to build a new headquarters to accommodate the existing department as well as the anticipated growth over the next 20 years.

If voters support the bond issue, the next question is where to put the new building—and the parking that needs to go with it. While the city at one point considered moving its police department out of the heart of downtown, Mayor John Engen is determined to keep it there, a move widely supported because it will keep city services consolidated and because it will maintain police presence and involvement in Missoula’s core.

While the Poverello would appear to be an ideal choice for both parties, it isn’t that simple: The shelter’s property alone couldn’t accommodate the needs of the police, and so the idea rests on the city’s ability to acquire four other adjoining properties. So far, reports Engen, the possibility “doesn’t sound particularly promising,” although there’s no final word.

Board President Armerding says he’ll be happy with whatever outcome the city’s current planning brings.

“We wouldn’t want to be a stumbling block to their plans and we don’t believe they want to be a stumbling block to ours,” he says. “I think we’re open to doing what the community needs, and so if that’s relocating then we believe we’ll be supported in that and if it’s not having to relocate, then we believe we’ll continue to be supported.”

Hill seconds Armerding’s sentiment that either option will work for the Poverello’s plans. She stresses, though, that knowing for certain one way or another is her most pressing concern.

“We’re waiting to find out what the future holds for us, and it’s a difficult position to be in,” says Hill. That’s because there are plenty of important, less expensive problems she’s eager to correct—for instance, the tiling in the men’s showers is crumbling under years of heavy use—and to do so she needs to apply for grants. However, she’s reluctant to do so if there’s a possibility the city might purchase the Poverello’s property down the road and raze it; she says she can’t in good conscience apply for and accept grant money for projects she knows may be bulldozed. And the main issue of needing to perform major remodeling to create handicapped accessibility or family accommodations drives this point home even further.

That’s why the Poverello is in the beginning stages of launching a capital campaign, so if efforts to cooperate with the city don’t move forward, the nonprofit will be better prepared to move ahead with raising funds to allow it to proceed on its own projects.

Either way, each scenario for the Poverello’s future—remodeling or relocating—presents its own hurdles.

On the one hand, says Hill, “a new building would clearly be ideal for us. We’ve been around for 35 years and the idea of the founders years ago was not that we would house 80 people a night and that’s where we are. And as Missoula continues to grow, we’re already at capacity.”

But finding a new location might prove more trouble than it’s worth, given the likelihood of conflict with potential neighbors. That concern is nothing new: As early as 1975, the Poverello faced scrutiny from its neighbors about the effect it was having on property values, and the discord resulted in the shelter relocating from its original site on Pine Street to the Ryman Street location, where it’s been ever since.

Today, three of the Poverello’s most immediate neighbors have nothing but good to report about the Poverello.

“I honestly don’t have a negative thing to say about the Poverello. They’re carrying a load for the community by caring for the homeless,” says The Depot owner Mike Munsey, whose comments were seconded by Cynthia Smith, owner of a law office that shares an alley with the Poverello.

Richard Volinkaty, who also owns a law office across the Poverello’s alley, says several years ago he found himself calling the police once a week about problems with Poverello clients in his back yard. Since then, Poverello staff seem to have improved the alley area where crowds used to loiter, and now he can’t remember the last time he called the police with a complaint.

While current neighbors are content with the Poverello, moving to a new spot might still prove contentious given Missoula’s past difficulties locating facilities like the 3:16 Mission or even the ballpark.

“A lot of people who support the Pov—even downtown businesses—they might donate now, but if we’re going to be the ones moving next door to them, it could become a ‘not in my back yard’ kind of thing,” says Hill. “We’re aware of that, but we’re here to stay in downtown Missoula for sure.”

A downtown location is key, say a chorus of people including Hill and Engen, because that’s where services like Partnership Health Center, the Mountain Line bus transfer, police and St. Patrick Hospital are found.

Father George DuMais, one of the Poverello’s early organizers, says the group originally picked downtown for the organization because that’s where most of the people who needed it were found. He’s worried that increased sophistication of downtown might create more pressure to lessen the visibility of Missoula’s homeless shelter. Hill, too, is sensitive to that issue but knows the Poverello has its share of ardent supporters.

“One of the first phone calls I got when I became the executive director was from a very well-known suit-wearing lawyer in downtown Missoula who called me and said, ‘I know the scuttlebutt and that some might want to relocate the Poverello from downtown…but listen, I will represent you for free before they ever move you out of downtown Missoula because you’re part of the fabric of downtown. Don’t ever let them make you the undesirables,’” Hill says. “[Our patrons] represent a part of the citizens of this town—we are not the undesirables. We are the people of Missoula…and I think the character of Missoula and why people like to live here is because of the uniqueness of the citizens who live here…”

Given the uncertainty about whether the city can build where the Poverello now stands, as well as the massive task that securing a new location would represent for the nonprofit organization, revamping its current site may ultimately prove to make more sense.

That option would take advantage of the main thing the Poverello has going for it financially—its prized location—without creating the problem of scrounging up enough capital to build afresh.

“Our property is the most valuable asset the Poverello owns,” says Hill. “We operate completely as a nonprofit and we don’t have an endowment; we are truly a homeless shelter and we don’t even have the resources to move…”

Either option—moving or renovating—will present the awkward difficulty of transitioning. The Poverello isn’t like a restaurant whose customers could just go elsewhere for their meals or a hotel whose lodgers could move to a new inn if major remodeling began, and that means whatever option the Poverello ultimately pursues must incorporate some continuum of services into its plans.

“We can’t close, even for a night,” Hill insists. “There isn’t enough federal, state or local money to get enough hotel vouchers [to put Poverello residents up during remodeling]. I mean, what are they going to do, put us up in the Doubletree? I mean, it would be nice—the guys would love it!—but…”

Put in perspective, the Poverello’s challenges aren’t nearly as daunting as those faced by the hundreds of people who turn up on its doorstep each week. While eating hearty lunchtime helpings, patron after patron will happily share tales of hard luck that might prompt most Missoulians to think twice about their own security.

Liz Hall, who’s on her first bout of homelessness, found out after her divorce that she didn’t have any credit established and couldn’t rent an apartment in her California hometown; now she’s living at the Poverello, which she calls a “Godsend.” Thomas Hutchins, who’s just here for lunch, says the Poverello staff recently helped him find the first home he’s had in 35 years and things are looking up, but he’s here for a meal since his own refrigerator is empty this week.

A few months ago, Dale Peterson never dreamed of being homeless. The former Phillipsburg man has been staying at the Poverello for the last six weeks while he sends out dozens of job applications seeking work he’s overqualified for. As a mining equipment operator, until recently Peterson had a steady, good-paying job. But on his way to work one day, he says, he hit a deer and totaled his car. He lost his job when he couldn’t get to work, and exhausted his savings while trying to find another way to earn a living in the small town. At lunchtime, he’s taking a brief break at the Poverello before heading out again in search of a new job, though he’s not thrilled about applying for something that will pay minimum-wage when he used to earn more than $30 an hour.

“I’ve never been through this before, so I’m kind of learning as I go,” he says.

Like Peterson, the Poverello Center may not have immediate answers to its dilemmas just yet, but what it does have is an array of people working hard on its behalf. And if any group ought to be up to the task of crafting creative solutions to difficult questions, it’s those who’ve dedicated their lives to helping the destitute on a daily basis.
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