Heaping towers of second-hand boots, gloves and winter jackets fill both sides of the Poverello Center’s front room. Between the piles, nearly a dozen people fill any remaining patch of carpet, as well as every available space in the front room and hallway.
A busy night at Missoula’s Poverello Center has for decades meant a maximum of 70 people, says executive director Ellie Hill. But the recent series of arctic cold snaps has Montana’s largest homeless shelter bursting at the seams—and at risk of running out of critical supplies.
“Usually the summertime’s the busiest season at the Pov,” says Hill. “But in our 34-year history, this winter has brought on unprecedented numbers.”
Specifically, the Pov allowed a record 102 people to spend the night Saturday, Dec. 20. But with only 70 bunks, more than 30 slept on the floor—in hallways, the cafeteria, anywhere there was room.
“The Pov just wasn’t designed to be an indispensable public resource that literally saves peoples’ lives from the cold,” says Hill. “But we filled up right when the cold got bad and we’ve been very busy since.”
The increase doesn’t just mean overnight attendance is up; daytime use is also soaring.
“Three hundred and fifty people per day are using the facility, which means that we’re serving more people who aren’t homeless than are,” says Hill. “A lot of these are poor people, elderly people on fixed incomes, people with no legs—you know, people that have sorta been forgotten.”
Hill says those who use the Pov come for the full-time medical clinic, the soup kitchen and the food pantry, as well as to stock up on free clothing and bedding. The facility needs more of these things, says Hill, because she has no intention of turning people away.
“Before you ever give away your used coat, blanket or sleeping bag, think of us,” she says. “If these guys score a sleeping bag instead of a blanket, well, they’re pretty happy.”